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Columbia Business Monthly

Repo Woman: Meet the Greer businesswoman who runs a nationwide repossession empire

Aug 07, 2019 11:49AM

By Emily Pietras

Photography by Amy Randall Photography

Renee McAbee has a fitting metaphor to describe the repossession industry. "I always say, ‘It's the ugly toe on the foot of commerce,'" she says. "But it's a necessity." 

If there wasn't a means for banks to reclaim losses on defaulted loans, McAbee explains, obtaining an affordable loan for a car or home would be nearly impossible due to high interest rates. 

"If they couldn't repossess or foreclose, they'd have to make up for their losses somehow, so they'd make up for it in their interest rates," she says. 

McAbee is the founder and principal of A1 Nationwide, a national repossession forwarding company headquartered in Greer, with a satellite office in Wilmington, Delaware. She first entered the industry in 1995, albeit reluctantly, after taking a job with a company in Greenville that conducted both repossessions and private investigations. McAbee was interested in the latter, but her employer put her on a different track.  

"Before I was going to be allowed to do private investigations and get my PI license through them, I had to do repossession work, because that's where I was needed at the time," she says. "So that's how I originally got into repo work. It was unintentional, but it has certainly worked out well for us." 

In 2002, McAbee struck out on her own and opened Night Stalker Recovery. Eight years later, thanks to persistent encouragement from a lender, NSR's business model shifted, and the company became A1 Nationwide. 

At that point, the company stopped conducting repossessions and driving repo trucks themselves and instead transitioned into forwarding. Today, A1 Nationwide serves as a middleman for lenders, contracting with 604 vetted independent repossession agents across the country. 

"With a forwarding company, we get the contracts nationwide from banks, finance companies, and credit unions," McAbee says. "If, for example, the assignment is in Jacksonville, Florida, we would have about nine agents to choose from. We pick the agent who does the best job for us in that area, and we send the assignment to that agent. … But we handle all the paperwork at that point, and we do all the updates to the lender. So the repo agent's job, at that point, is just to get that collateral picked up and to bill us." 

Taking advantage of the latest technology is essential to A1 Nationwide's day-to-day operations. Individuals who have defaulted on loans must be located prior to collecting any collateral, but sometimes they can be difficult to find, McAbee says. The company uses several databases that can yield someone's previous addresses, current address, phone number, and names of relatives. 

License plate recognition systems are also "another tool in the toolbox to get our repossessions picked up," she says.

"The cameras scan license plates, and if they scan a license plate that is out for repossession, they set off an alarm and give you a phone number to call to get permission to pick that car up," McAbee says. "So it can be 2 in the morning, and it gives you a phone number to call, and whoever's on call with our company will answer that phone." 

Each assignment A1 Nationwide receives is logged into a license plate camera database so that any of the company's contracted agents can be alerted if they come across a vehicle that needs to repossessed.

"We may be looking for a car in Myrtle Beach, and they may find it in Indiana," McAbee says. 

This evolution in technological capabilities has significantly changed the repossession industry, McAbee says. In the mid-1990s, resources to track down individuals or find vehicles were scarce. 

"There were no camera systems," she says. "There were a little bit of skip trace databases but not much. You basically ran the addresses that the bank sent you. You didn't have a whole lot of access to other information." 

One modern development that has hurt the industry, however, is the rise of reality television shows that sensationalize the experiences of repo agents working in the field.  

"There's been so many television shows that glamorize repossession," McAbee says. "People are dragging people out of cars at traffic lights, and people are getting shot at. That kind of stuff doesn't normally happen. It's very rare that it happens."

Programs that have capitalized on the caricature of the hyper-aggressive repo man are pushing a false narrative of the industry, McAbee says, one that puts debtors on the defensive and potentially endangers repo agents when they come to collect. 

"People see it as these horrible people that are just out trying to ruin these people's lives, and that's not the case," she says.