The Economy: Don’t Pick Up the Phone

The tanking economy isn’t exactly your fault, but America’s biggest debt-collection company — headquartered in Horsham — will still hunt you down

THIS WAS ON a sunny afternoon at Iron Horse Farm, a hilly 80-acre tract in Chester County that Piola, 61, bought when he left NCO six years ago. He built his dream house on the top of the hill. It’s a marvel of peach stucco and Douglas-fir lumber, crafted to look like “a manor house in the South of France somewhere,” Piola said. It was built atop a foundation dating back to 1740 — some Revolutionary farmer’s abode. Piola loves that. “Very American, to come here and carve something out.”
Working as a salesman for NCO was Piola’s second career. His first career was teaching. As a young man, Piola used to teach American history to junior high-schoolers. But then his wife gave birth to two children, and Piola got scared he wouldn’t be able to support them on his $10,500 teacher’s salary. So he made the leap into cold-call sales. He read Dress for Success and bought a single midnight-blue suit. He wore it every day. He drove a burgundy 1979 Plymouth Horizon up and down the interstates of the East Coast. In 1986, Piola became the second employee of NCO.
The first employee was the company’s founder, Michael Barrist. Barrist was young. Remarkably so: a CEO at age 25. But he had a powerful idea. He had grown up in Havertown, where his parents ran a small debt-collection company out of their converted garage. Most debt companies were mom-and-pop operations. Barrist dreamed of bringing the industry into the age of computers and databases and offshore call centers. The time was ripe. All over America, people were flashing plastic. It was the dawn of the credit-card era. In 1952, according to a report by the think tank Center for American Progress, American families had less than 40 cents in debt for every dollar of disposable income; basically, for every buck in their wallet they could spend on food or gas or a new TV, they owed 40 cents to stores or banks. Manageable. Reasonable. But by 1990, it was 80 cents in debt for every dollar of disposable income. (By 2007, it was $1.34 in debt for every dollar.) Suddenly, organizations of all kinds — department stores, sports teams, dentists, surgeons, colleges, municipalities, even the federal government — found themselves unable to deal with the flood of consumers who owed them money.
And now here were these nice men from Philadelphia — these businessmen, taking advantage of a shift in the culture — who were more than willing to handle that fraught and nasty business of collecting debts, in exchange for a cut of the action.