Vengroff, Williams, Inc. was founded in 1963 by Harvey Vengroff at the age of 21 and he continues to run the company today, fifty years later. I recently spoke to Harvey in his Sarasota, FL office and asked him a few questions about himself and Vengroff Williams.
I asked Harvey how he got into the industry and got a very interesting story about a Great Dane named Hoss and a janitorial services company.
While attending law school in California in 1963, he stated: “I was in the janitorial supply business and had some accounts I could not collect, so I typed up a list and took it to Dunn and Bradstreet. I came back a week later and asked for my money and they said they had written everyone a letter. The amount owing was over $30K, a lot of money in 1963. I did not think that was what a collection agency did…I expected them to go break heads and get my money”, he continued. “The next day I put my dog (the Great Dane) in the truck and went to collect my money. I went into the businesses with my dog and told everyone to pay or my dog would bite them. The dog growled and everyone paid”‘ he said, as if it were a matter of fact. “So, I was in the collection business” he said, with a proud grin.
Harvey explained that he was now in the collection business and signing up many new clients. Word got around quickly in the neighborhood and even more businesses were hiring him to collect their delinquent accounts. He had no office, no sales department, no expenses except dog food, but the volume grew quickly and Harvey needed help, employees and an office.
Next he told a story about work releases from the local jail and hiring thugs to collect the receivables, working off 3X5 cards and of hiring ranked boxers and former “FBI Most Wanted “as staff. Harvey smiles as he remembers this period. “As things change you adapt, it is not nearly as much fun now as it was then. I was 21-22 years old and I had a bunch of tough guys working for me. It was fun to hit people and get paid for it, now you have to do things according to a set of rules.” He sighed after that statement as if the memory was fond to him.
“My first experience with rules was in the early 60’s when some guy came into the office and said he was from the licensing bureau and I threw him down the stairs”. He laughed lightly and then giggles as he said: “And we were not allowed to do business in California for the next year.”
In the 70’s and 80’s Harvey was known for his saddle shoes and his Rolls Royce. Harvey stated, “I had 50-60 saddle shoes at any one time. People did not always remember my name but they remembered the guy in the saddle shoes that brought in their collections.”
When asked about payment methods and skip-tracing Harvey said, “We went to visit them. We knew where they were located, and whatever fell out of their pockets, we gave them a receipt for”.
What do you miss most about the “old days?” was quickly followed by “ Beating up people and getting paid for it!“ said Harvey with a grin.
I then asked, “With your 50th year at Vengroff Williams right around the corner, what do you attribute to your longevity in the industry?” “The ability to adapt and my lack of ability as a manager. I have allowed other people to do well and I have taken the credit for it”, Harvey said with a snicker in his voice. I asked him to explain this and he said, “Well, most people have never been empowered in a job and I empower them. I have always encouraged people to do what they think is right. When I would come in in the mornings, they would ask me a lot of questions but they usually knew the answers. If you think about it, they just wanted someone to reaffirm them”.
This made sense to me, as it is the way most business works and the way I was taught to perform business. Harvey stated: “I made it a point to jog or go sailing in the morning and not come in till 11-12 o’clock . By that time every problem was solved,” He feels that by allowing his staff to problem solve and create on their own he has profited in many ways, and so have they. He has made 19 millionaires from his staff thus far and is looking for the 20th. He also has many loyal long-term employees or “lifers” as he calls them.
Today, Harvey has no office, just a cubicle in the center of the collection floor, and still shows up daily after sailing on his 58 foot custom sailboat, “Lollipop“.
When I asked, “What was the best advice given to you years ago?” He responded: “ Hum, best advice? My Dad said you can do anything you want as long as you do not listen to the people who say you can’t!“
When ask about dealing with staff, Harvey stated: “National collections agencies work by the numbers. We always told our collectors to think of it as their own money and we paid them very well for it. We managed the office the same way. We had a percentage of profits that was shared with the collectors. Then at the end of the month we threw a pile of cash on the table with each collector getting an equal vote as to who would get a share of it. If you did not receive a share in two consecutive months, then you were fired.”
“What advice would you bestow on someone entering this business in today’s environment”, was my last question to Harvey that day. “I think the most important thing is to be a salesman. If you can be a salesman and get the business, then you can find some smart people to collect it.“ Harvey had a great trick to get new business in the days before contracts were required to do business. On a sales call he would ask the prospect for an account to collect and he would phone it into the staff while he took the prospect to lunch. When lunch was completed the account was collected and the deal struck.
This resulted in many big deals for Harvey.
I enjoyed my lunch with Harvey and his passion for business and empowering people. He is an important part of the collection history and quite an interesting person.