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Local auto repossession company enjoys upswing in business

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  • Local auto repossession company enjoys upswing in business

    Local auto repossession company enjoys upswing in business

    Politicians and academics can say what they want about the state of the economy, but there's one bellwether that's never wrong: The repossession business.
    "Work has definitely picked up," says Tori Cody. "Slammed."
    When those who are down-and-out come looking for their vehicles, things can get downright violent. Cody, who runs the office, has had her jaw broken by someone who came by to pick up personal property taken out of a repossessed vehicle. "Every day I get called a *****," she says with a shake of her head. "Every day."

    The Business

    In a nondescript building on the Salt Lake Valley's west side, Cody, an average-sized 20-something, and eight others work for a repossession company. (The name is being withheld because of association bylaws that restrict use of the company's name in the press.) You also won't find an address in the Yellow Pages or on their Web site.
    But business is up at the company -- way up. Their goal of 50 vehicles a week has been pretty easy to reach, she says. There are plenty of requests from banks or other lending institutions -- a huge stack of them sit on Cody's desk -- but tracking them down is rarely as easy as driving to a known address, getting the keys from the owner and driving away. During a recent interview things went well -- the phone rang non-stop, including several calls nailing down the location of vehicles.
    They're getting requests to pick up everything "from $80,000 Mercedes ... to a $200, 1987 Chevy Caprice."
    "We're getting a bunch of SUVs right now because people can't afford them," said recovery agent Eric Koellner.

    It's a gas

    Utah has the seventh-highest gas rates in the nation, according to AAA, at $4.20 a gallon. It's dropped all of 2 cents a gallon in the past five days after it peaked for the year at $4.22.
    "For several months Utah had been substantially below the national average," Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, recently told the Deseret News. "Right now the pendulum has swung."
    And high prices mean more SUV "recoveries" for Koellner, Cody and the rest, but it also hits their business.
    Their jobs range far and wide, from Pocatello, Idaho, to Wyoming to Richfield. Being so flexible brings in a lot of business, but it's also a strain when you're driving a towtruck.
    "Gas is killing us right now," Cody said. "We pay $18,000 a month."

    The economy

    Utah's housing market, still in better shape than most other states, is nevertheless taking a hit. Utah County property assessments show that prices have dropped and sales have slowed. Because the state is often behind the nation on economic trends, the bottom may not have been reached.
    "I don't think we've seen all the foreclosures yet," said county Assessor Kris Poulson.
    Then there's Utah Valley's job market, which actually lost jobs recently for the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
    Like most Utah indicators, housing and employment are still among the best of the country, but the slide is having a real effect. State tax revenue forecasts are down $112 million from initial projections.

    Misery boosts the company
    You have to be tough in the repossession business, physically and mentally.
    Cody's first pick-up nearly a decade ago was from a woman who had failed on her payments because of medical bills related to cancer.
    "She was bald and everything," she said. "I bawled the whole way back to Salt Lake because I felt like such an idiot."
    But repossession employees also have to feed their kids, and a broken contract is still a broken contract.
    Still, they try and help when they can. Koellner was on a pick-up of a van in Wendover at 2 a.m. when he realized the owner's entire possessions were likely in the vehicle. He found the room number of the motel room they were in and knocked. He was greeted with a gun.
    He quietly explained who he was, that shooting him was just going to result in a prison sentence and a loss of the man's family, and that he was giving the guy a chance to clean out the van. "I could have driven away," Koellner says. "I didn't have to knock."
    On another occasion they put up a former owner in a motel for a night because he was living in the vehicle they were towing away.

    Tricks of the trade

    The days of a repo man who jumps in and hot-wires a vehicle are long gone.
    "That's really old school, to be honest with you, the hot-wiring and stuff like that," Cody says.
    Now it's a quick hookup to a tow truck if the keys aren't in the vehicle. (They usually aren't.) They'll try and hook up the front wheels if it's a front-wheel-drive car, but it doesn't always work out.
    Getting in and out can take as little as 20 seconds, but that sometimes means dragging a car away even if the wheels are locked. Once off the property and around a corner, Koellner and others will unhook it and do it properly for the long haul.
    There's also a lot more legwork that has to be done ahead of time. In the age of identity theft, finding a vehicle to repossess is more difficult. That means more door-knocking, phone calls and online searches for their target.
    "They'll use dead people's Social Security numbers, fake address ... wrong numbers. I'm seeing that more and more every day," Cody says.

    Not just cars

    Banks, title companies and other lenders aren't just looking for traditional vehicles. Boats, four-wheelers and even construction equipment are on the repo list.
    The latter will cost more because of its size and the time it takes to find, as construction companies usually work at multiple sites.
    "Heavy equipment is a lot harder because it could be anywhere," Cody says.
    The repo crowd is a group that seems to enjoy their work, despite the threats and stress. Some of that may be because those who don't click with the climate quickly wash out.
    "We've had a few guys scared to get out of their trucks," Cody said. "You can't be scared. It's not like going in and applying at Wal-Mart."
    Cody, who was introduced to the business when she was 17, doesn't plan on leaving, even with the 24-7 schedule.
    "I just love it. I've tried to go other places," she says with a slight pause. At least at this job "there's always somebody new on the phone yelling at you."