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New W.D.M. firm focuses on business debt collection


Every once in a great while, something comes along to change Dave Gaer’s career plans. When he was a young man playing professional golf, a tree root in South Africa did the trick; he swung a club, hit the root, injured his wrist and that was the end of that career. Last year, he was cruising along in a 20-year tour of duty at Allstate Insurance when some longtime acquaintances rerouted him again. Now he’s a business-to-business debt collector.

Gaer, 46, manages Wexford & James LLC, a West Des Moines company started about six months ago by local businessmen Jim Cownie and Kevin Grimm and lawyer Leon Shearer. The company doesn’t deal with consumer debts, but specializes in collecting money owed by one company to another.

The first thing they tell everybody is, No, we don’t break kneecaps. Their job is to negotiate, make arrangements and, when necessary, enter into litigation. “We tell our account managers to be solution-oriented,” Gaer said. “We try not to ruin the relationship between our client and the debtor, and there’s an art to that.”

Talk about forming the company started in the fall of 2002. “I was not satisfied with the service and returns I was getting from collection agencies,” said Grimm, the president of Rhino Materials LC. “The revolving-credit landscape seemed to be changing, and people felt it was OK not to pay their debts.”

Grimm discussed the problem with Shearer, who formerly operated a law firm that included a collections unit, and Cownie, the co-founder of Heritage Communications Inc. Neal Bunce, a vice president at Rhino, also came on board, adding several years of collection experience. When the group contacted Gaer, he saw it as an opportunity to get involved in a business with an equity position.

The group selected two names from Grimm’s family history to come up with a prestigious-sounding company title. “It sounds a lot better than something like Debt Inc.,” Grimm said.

Wexford & James employs six people and has worked with more than 100 clients, according to Gaer. “We’ve worked with public and private companies of all sizes, including some Fortune 500 companies,” he said, but declined to identify them. “We’re heavy in agricultural companies – seed, feed, chemical and equipment – as well as financial service companies and local, regional and national manufacturers.”

The company takes a percentage of each collection as its fee. The percentage varies according to the age of the debt and its size, and increases if it’s a debt other collection agencies have failed to recover, if legal action is required or if it calls for international work.

Wexford & James subscribes to specialized services that provide “overwhelming access to information,” in Grimm’s words. Armed with that background, “we talk to the debtor about their assets and options. We tell them ‘You want to resolve this, because there are consequences,’” Gaer said. When all else fails, the debtor receives a phone call from litigation manager Joe Murphy, a key Wexford & James member who has worked in collections since 1976. About 15 percent of the cases end up in court.

Gaer characterized the company’s business plan as “somewhat portable.” “We like to think we could set up offices in other cities,” he said. The staff works in a 2,500-square-foot office space 2910 Westown Parkway in West Des Moines, and Grimm said there’s no plan for major expansion. “We like to have a few high-quality employees, not 500 cubicles,” he said. “We’re happy with our progress at this point, but life is a marathon, not a sprint.”

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