Dave Miller, left, of Missouri Reposession Services looks on with son Zach as a new repossession is brought into the storage lot. Miller said he repossess about 150 cars a month and 10 to 20 ATV’s a week.
Dave Miller uses the accounts board to keep track of every possible repossession. He says half his job is paperwork and finding people.
Dave Miller, owner of Missouri Repossession Services, is well aware of the misconceptions about his profession, which is growing in this slumping economy.
Just the word “repo” conjures a scene: In the dead of night, with moves rehearsed from S.W.A.T. team movie scenes, repo men wearing matching black bulletproof vests and wielding crowbars and tow hooks break into cars and drive them away, just as awakened owners start to give chase.
Lost in lore
Lost in layers of lore and hype, the reality of repossession is often as elusive as debtors repo men and women track down. Some misconceptions are easy to cast aside: No, they don’t wear matching uniforms, carry guns or impersonate police officers. However, laws and ethics that define what repo men and women can and can’t do vary from state to state and from company to company.
Missouri is a self-help repossession state, which means a creditor may seize a loan’s collateral, most often a vehicle. In Missouri, repossession is a largely unregulated industry. A licensed repossessor, Miller has been lobbying for stricter regulations and adheres to standards he has learned from nearly 15 years in the business.
Missouri Repossession Services has six employees and two offices, one in Columbia and one in Springfield, where they coordinate repossessions across mid-Missouri.
For Miller, a former arson investigator and police officer, the choice to go into the repossession business was something of an accident.
“A banker friend called me up with an offer of $300 a piece to pick up two cars and find two people. I found them in a couple days and their cars,” Miller said.
After completing the lucrative transaction, Miller began doing repossessions part-time and made $85,000 in the first nine months.
“After that, I started to take it seriously and started educating myself about the business,” he said.
Laws and regulations
A lot has changed in the repo business since Miller’s first repossession. Laws and regulations have replaced old-school tactics, ubiquitous at that time. For instance, repossession agencies are not allowed to seize a vehicle when seizure breaches the peace, a difficult term to define. The Missouri Peace Disturbance defines breach of peace as knowingly disturbing or alarming another person, which could be as subtle as a person’s refusing to give up a car. Technically, the repossessor would be unable to take the vehicle in that case. The lines are sometimes blurry, and banks and repossession services often are responsible for making the distinction.
When doing repossession, Jerry Garroutte, Miller’s nephew and employee, remembers: “Dave always tells us, if you’re going to lose sleep over it, don’t do it. We’ll get it another time.”
Garroutte and Zach Miller, Dave Miller’s son, work as a team. They will never take a car if kids are inside or around the vehicle or if the debtor is using it, Garroutte said.
“We don’t want to humiliate anyone,” Miller said. “We treat people the way we would want to be treated. Oftentimes, we are meeting these people at the lowest point in their lives and we are making it worse for them.”
The current economic state and sub-prime lending problems have lead to an increase in repossessions around Missouri, but that doesn’t directly translate into larger profits for Missouri Repossession Services.
“Everybody wants to be in the repo business, because all they see is the dollar sign,” Miller said. “But it takes a lot of money to do this. I’ve seen maybe 20 to 30 companies come and go around here. It’s a lucrative business, but it’s a hard business.”
Whittling down the figures, Miller said the same factors that contribute to more individuals being unable to make their payments also diminishes his business profits. The price of doing business has skyrocketed as gas prices and insurance costs rise.
Zach Miller and Garroutte spent $107 to fill up a truck for a short repo trip to Holt’s Summit and Fulton. They try to consolidate pick-ups in one or two locations to avoid unnecessary trips, but required reconnaissance work on a unit before repossession usually goes unpaid. If they drive an hour and don’t return with a vehicle, high gas prices will put their profits in the hole.
Once fuel, labor and insurance costs are subtracted, the $375 to $425 for each car collected doesn’t add up to large profits. Also, the market for repossessed cars has not maintained. Collected vehicles oftentimes are difficult to resell at all.
“If I hadn’t gotten into the business years ago, I couldn’t afford to get into it now,” Miller said. “You can’t run a business like this from your back pocket.”
Owner of Midwest Adjusters Inc., a repossession agency in southwest Missouri, Debra Burham said business has decreased from this time last year. In the last four or five years overall, she has seen the numbers peak.
“I started looking at it in 2004 when the sub-prime lending hit us, and now it’s really coming to a head,” Burham said. “We’re actually eight units less than this time last year. We have been picking up more heavy equipment, RVs, motor homes and boats. They’re losing their toys, first, before they give up their cars.”
Dave Miller reports that the Dodge Neon one of the most commonly repossessed car.
On a recent repossession, Zach Miller and Garroutte encountered a blend of personalities as they visited three locations: a compliant friend of a debtor, a helpful neighbor and a rude debtor.
Before an attempted repossession, Garroutte was hung up on three times by an irate man who refused to deal with anyone who could not pronounce his name, despite Garroutte’s apologies.
The two agents also found a debtor’s boyfriend, but were unable to tell if he was lying about where the debtor worked. Two hours later, they ended up with two large ATVs collected from a relatively friendly debtor. With their mission successful and collateral recovered, Zach Miller and Garroutte returned to the Columbia office.
Not every run has the same outcome. In fact, Miller said you never know who you are going to encounter when you try to repossess property.
“You have to be able to juggle a lot of personalities and be able to control the situation,” he said.
While picking up a vehicle in southern Missouri a few months ago, Zach Miller and Garroutte found out how a peaceful situation can turn into the worst possible scenario. The two agents met a debtor’s husband at his front door and were told the vehicle was in a barn beside the house. The husband allowed them to hook up the vehicle to tow it away. But when they went back to the house, they encountered the debtor, intoxicated and armed, they said.
“She was drunk and decided she was going to shoot us,” Zach Miller said. “She got her rifle and shot at us and hit her own truck a few times.”
Escaping unharmed and surprisingly unrattled, Zach and Garroutte continued repossessing cars until about 3 a.m. the same night.
Jerry garroutte repossesses a car in Columbia. he said he loves his job because, I get paid to steal cars and it’s fun.”
The adrenaline rush often caused by repossessing vehicles can lure employees as much as the lucrative pay does.
“Once you take your first car from a driveway, you’re hooked,” Garroutte said. “At first I liked the rush. It’s something different and you get to travel a lot.”
Most of Missouri Repossession Service’s employees are either Miller’s family members or lifelong friends. Zach plans to inherit the business.
Some of Miller’s clients are just as familiar after doing business with Missouri Repossession Services for years. Missouri Title Loans has used Miller’s company to collect collateral since they opened in Columbia eight years ago.
“They do a really good job of keeping in contact and finding cars that are hard to find,” said Matt Langley of Missouri Title Loans. “The communication is excellent. They’ll email me, fax me, call me to keep me up on the progress of a vehicle.”
Langley said they usually find and collect on about 85 percent of the jobs he sends them each month.
In Missouri, a car owner doesn’t need a title to relinquish a vehicle at a junkyard, making finding cars and people difficult. But for Miller, who worked at a large-scale investigation firm before opening Missouri Repossession Services, skip tracing is his forté.
“I can find just about anyone,” he said.
Missouri Repossession Service
2306 Industrial Drive • Columbia, Mo 65202