Repo firms work flat out amid oil slump in Alberta
Civil enforcement industry got 25% busier from April to October
While the crash in oil prices idles drilling rigs and empties out downtown Calgary offices, Steven Low's company can barely keep up with the deluge of work.
Low is CEO of Consolidated Recovery Group, an agency in Western Canada that works with lenders and the courts to recover bad debts — by repossessing a car or carrying out an eviction, for example.
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It's been a busy year for the company and the work has only picked up as the crude doldrums linger, squeezing the finances of the many Albertans who rely on oil and gas to make a living — either directly, or through its economic spinoffs.
Low says bailiffs at his firm are working around the clock and he's even had to hire more staff to get all the work done.
According to the Alberta Sheriff's Office, civil enforcement industry activity grew by more than a quarter between April and October of this year.
Low says even though his industry is booming right now, he and his staff don't relish profiting off of people's misfortunes.
"We don't gloat or feel terribly excited about the economic conditions right now. We approach every single repo and seizure as an opportunity to help respect the dignity of the debtor," he said.
"We'll even go out of our way to seize a vehicle around the corner or allow the person to bring it out of their place of work so that co-workers don't see their vehicle being towed away. Anything we can do to help a debtor, who's co-operative of course, to save face is something that we seek to do."
Business twice as busy
John Shortridge, who runs Allied Shortridge Civil Enforcement, figures he's twice as busy now as in the spring.
Shortridge is a veteran of the business — first with the Alberta Sheriff's Office and then on his own after civil enforcement functions were privatized in the province in 1996.
He already has the sense this oil price bust is going to be worse than the one brought on by the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, which was followed by a relatively speedy recovery.
"This reminds me more of '82 and '83. It was bad and it was long... My view is this is going to be a long haul," Shortridge said.
"In some ways, every recession is the same in that the first thing that goes are the toys — so the motorcycles, the fifth-wheel trailer, the campers, the cottage," he said.
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"All the extras go first. And then people work their way down to more basic things — the house and the car being the last two payments that they would default on."
Shortridge said he doesn't think the full impact has hit yet, as many laid off employees are still able to make ends meet thanks to severance packages. Once those run out, he expects to be even busier.
Shortridge said he looks to hire bailiffs who have a mixture of "thick skin and compassion" to conduct tasks that are often emotionally fraught.
"When the bailiff goes to the door, you can't yell at the economy, but here's somebody you can yell at," he said.