The Debt Collector

I formed my hand into a tightly clenched fist, the veins in my temple began to throb as a single bead of sweat trickled down my brow and dripped effortlessly onto the heavily soiled carpet below. “It’s now or never” I reassured myself, as my tremoring hand slowly reached up to the putrid door before me and forced a knock that I secretly hoped would not be heard.

A shadowy eyeball peered back at me through the peephole in the door, then as quickly as it arrived, disappeared. What followed next the sound of hushed but harried voices speaking in a foreign tongue, frantic activity, then the distinct sound of a toilet flushing.

I reached up, feeling as if I was signing my death warrant and again dared to knock, but this time stupidly with more force and then I decided to announce my arrival.

“Hello this is Anthony, your strata manager, can I have a word with you?”

My knee trembled uncontrollably as the door slowly opened but only as far as the safety chain allowed it. I puffed out my chest and stretched up onto my toes while coaxing a truly nervous smile from my blushing face.

Due to the majority of our interactions these days being online, I believe empathy should be exercised when collecting a debt.

Through the gap in the door, I could make out a tanned, unshaven man wearing a blue singlet more commonly referred to as a “wife beater” in colloquial terms. His expression showed nothing but disdain for the pathetic individual who dared to disturb him on this scorching Sydney summer afternoon.

“Hi Mr. Abdullah*, I’m your new strata manager, Anthony Votano and I’ve been asked by the committee to come and see you regarding your unpaid strata levies. When do you think you will be able to make payment?”

It was December 1995, my first month in my new job, Strata Manager. What had I gotten myself into? Leaving a successful job in Chartered Accounting, where among many prestigious clients on Sydney’s North Shore I even once gave advice to an Oscar Award-winning movie director, but yet here I was in downtown Auburn standing in this flea-ridden stairwell knocking on a suspected drug dealer’s door in my suit and tie looking for all intents and purpose like a Police Detective. How stupid was I?

The answer is, pretty stupid, I am now heading into my 25th year in strata and despite the changes, I will never forget my early days, where boutique strata meant the manager collecting unpaid levies on his own.

Fast forward to 2019 where the nervous trainee strata manager of 1995 is now General Manager of one of Sydney’s largest independent strata companies and is still involved in each and every levy recovery prior to it being placed in the hands of a debt collector.

In 2019, we no longer have the time to personally visit each and every debtor as we may have done in the pre-internet days nor would it be wise under our OH&S regulations, nevertheless, the importance of personal interaction with a debtor is equally important now as it was then, if not more so.

Due to the majority of our interactions these days being online, I believe empathy should be exercised when collecting a debt. By using the ability to imagine what it would be like to be in that person’s situation, you can honestly ensure that you treat someone the way that you would wish to be treated.

In the digital age, it is far too easy to simply press a button to commence legal action against someone. I thus encourage people before pressing that button, to stop, show some empathy and satisfy yourself that you have done all in your power to track down and then have a discussion with a debtor.

A familiar old Overseas telecommunications television commercial in Australia in the ‘80s had the catchphrase of ‘Why didn’t you call?” This is a mantra that I have utilized throughout my business life. By sometimes simply picking up a telephone and making the call, can you seek to satisfy yourself that you have done all in your power to find out the facts and interpret them prior to making an important decision which in many cases can be life changing to the defaulting owner.

When dealing with an owner who has unpaid strata levies, I find it helpful to explain in plain terms the possible consequences of the non-payment of levies, particularly the effect on their credit rating. In Australia, a default can be listed on your credit report simply for having an unpaid debt of $150.00 or more that has been outstanding for at least 60 days. This can then be listed on yourreport for up to five (5) years. During this time, whenever the lot owner wishes to takeout credit for any reason such as entering a mobile phone contract, leasing a car, borrowing for a house, etc, this black mark will come in to play making the exercise extremely difficult. Trying to fix your defective credit report can then be costly, timeconsuming and many times fruitless.

During my career, I have had many lot owners contact me in tears begging for their credit rating to be fixed because of levies that they did not pay years ago. As much as I feel for their situation, I at least remain assured in the fact that when I review my notes I find that in many cases they were the same owners that had hung up on me when I called them to inquire on their levies.

While email is an essential tool in strata, a manager cannot resolve all issues via email. In strata, relationships are fostered in 2 ways- in person (generally by attendance at a strata meeting) and over the phone. Short of actually talking to the debtor face-to-face as I did on that hot Summer afternoon in 1995, a telephone call is the next best thing. 

*not his real name

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