Ollie Garrett has built her $2 million debt collections company on a lot of risks — and a lot of faith.
In the five years since she created Bellevue-based PMT Solutions LLC, her company has grown to employ 10 people, eight of whom collect debts for institutional clients, almost always on the phone.
Garrett didn’t exactly plan to be in the collections industry. Born in Canton, Miss., she grew up in a world where a reasonable goal for a woman was to become a schoolteacher or nurse, but there weren’t many other choices. But there was a strong entrepreneurial streak in her family, and she early on started to tilt in that direction.
Sometimes she wonders if the roots of her occupation weren’t planted back when she was a 12-year-old girl, and used to go out every Saturday morning with her father, Earnest Garrett, to collect the rent — $10 per week — from the fourplex of apartments he owned.
Over time Garrett watched people pull their curtains closed when her father approached, trying to avoid paying the rent. So one day she decided to use her own approach. Without telling him, she went on ahead and knocked on the doors herself. When the people saw this 12-year-old girl standing there, they paid the rent that was due — and when her dad arrived, she handed over all $40. Job done.
“Collections was in me as a kid, and I didn’t know it,” she said. Garrett started working for her first collection agency in 1987. Her boss quickly sized her up and told her she wasn’t going to work out.
“You’re not aggressive enough,” she remembers him saying. “You’re not cut out to be a collector.”
But Garrett persevered, and then something surprising happened: She became the top collector in the company.
“I was just talking to people like normal, but I always stayed focused on the goal,” she said. “I was just connecting with people, putting them on payment plans. I was taking in so much money, and making so much commission, they were trying to change the commission structure.”
From this experience has evolved one of the hallmarks of her approach, encouraging people to pay off their debts by hearing what they have to say, rather than browbeating them.
“Generally speaking her approach to enforcing collections is a little softer,” said Yolande Williams, administrator for the Municipal Court of Seattle, and a PMT client. “It’s not the heavyhanded collection agency approach.”
Building PMT Solutions has been a quest for Garrett, with success often hanging on the precipice of improbability.
For starters, Garrett started assembling her company in 2007, just before the recession hit, not exactly a time when lenders were in the mood for a gamble.
“Nobody wanted to take a chance with a startup,” Garrett remembers.
She found a 2,400-square-foot office in Bellevue. The buildout was started before she had raised any capital, including the $15,000 down she owed the building owners. But a friend heard about her plight, called a family member, and soon afterward the $15,000 arrived, allowing her to move in.
To furnish and equip her office, Garrett turned to online ad site craigslist and companies going out of business, piecing together a coherent version of an office with used furniture and chairs that matched.
She prayed a lot. And she depended on good friends, at her church and elsewhere in her life.
And she kept giving back, as president of Tabor 100, an organization that supports minority entrepreneurs; and as a member of Mount Calvary Christian Center of Seattle, where she continued to tithe.
“Every step of the way I was working on faith, until the last six months of (2012), which is when things started being profitable,” she said. “The lesson learned is faith, and doing what you were put there to do, and knowing the man there (God) got your back.”
In the beginning it was hard to land accounts. She went through one year with no income at all.
But now she has six primary clients, including Seattle Municipal Court, Puget Sound Energy and Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
Her company is a subcontractor for several much larger companies, including Alliance One International Inc., based in Raleigh, N.C., and NCO Financial Systems Inc., in Horsham, Pa., fulfilling their need to have a minority women’s owned business enterprise on board. Revenues hit $2 million for 2012.
For Garrett, the journey to run her own company has been worth it, although perhaps not financially when compared to her previous job.
“If I had any idea, before I started out, that I would have gone through what I have gone through, I wouldn’t ever have started this business,” she said. “I got to where I am today because of people doing things for me, and I try to pay that back, in everything I do.”
And the entire time Garrett has focused on keeping her company humane and caring. In her mind, it’s not only a collections agency, but also a company helping people in debt bring order to their finances. To do this she generally hires employees with no collections experience, so she can teach them her company’s way.
“I try to find the right person, and I try to keep this where they’re working together and looking out for someone,” she said. “I teach them to empathize, listen to what the person’s saying. I teach them to work with a person, toward something that will be manageable.”