The clinically white reception area of JBW Group’s London headquarters offers few clues as to what this company does, unless you peer at a few framed service quality certificates from its local authority clients.
Then again there are not many pretty ways to present the gritty business of bailiffs turning up at people’s houses and seizing their personal property because they have failed to pay debts, such as the council taxes or parking fines that are JBW’s bread-and-butter work. The goods may be sold to recover sums to pay off the debts and the bailiff’s fees.
Jamie Waller, smartly dressed in suit and tie, reflects on 12 years of building a 170-strong business, collecting about £45m a year. His advice for anyone considering entering the enforcement market is “think of an easier one”. He has plenty of stories to illustrate why it takes a certain kind of temperament to operate in this sector — it can involve dealing with people down on their luck, hostile or even threatening violence.
Early in his career as an enforcement agent, Mr Waller was taken hostage at gunpoint. “The lady of the house opened the door, invited me in, and as I stood in the kitchen explaining to her why I was there, all of a sudden this guy came running down the stairs with his shotgun, screaming and shouting.
“He wouldn’t let me out of the house, he bolted all the doors, and we were in that house for a few hours.”
Mr Waller set up JBW with one employee and “little more than a mobile phone and a laptop”, and for the first two years of trading, he says he was subject to daily threats of violence from a competitor.
“The opportunity to make money does strange things to people,” Mr Waller notes, as he orders tea in the glass walled boardroom, a world away from such scenes.
Justice was served in the case of the aggressive rival, he says, when JBW took away millions of pounds of its business by offering a better service, and his company doubled in size within two years. He describes such experiences as difficult to deal with at the time but “character building”.
Having left school at 16 with no qualifications, Mr Waller is now studying for an executive MBA at Cranfield School of Management, having completed a programme aimed at owner-managers looking for rapid expansion of their companies.
However, he is conscious that he faces fundamentally different challenges from his peers because of the nature of his company’s work. Although he shows little emotion while relating hair-raising stories, there is a sense that Mr Waller feels misunderstood. “What JBW does supports a sustainable community and without [bailiffs]the government would struggle to support vital services,” he says. “Not many people see this though and not many people respect what we do.”
Enforcement agents — bailiffs — operating in England and Wales are often regarded by the public as heartless individuals with the potential to mislead, menace and keep opaque the process by which the value of goods is decided.
Debt charities such as London-based StepChange, which provides free advice to people in financial difficulties, stress that many people visited at home by bailiffs working for companies such as JBW are struggling because of personal misfortune. About half the 500,000 people who contact Stepchange each year have health problems brought on by the stress of their debts, says Peter Tutton, Stepchange head of policy: “There is a big bunch of vulnerability out there.”
Mr Waller insists that treating the people JBW visits as human beings not statistics is paramount and included in employee training. But he adds with some asperity that genuine cases of hardship are a minority among the people his staff come into contact with. “They are not old ladies,” he says. “They are people like you and I, but who have decided that they won’t comply with the rules that society has set them, which are pay your parking, pay your council tax, pay your income tax, etc. These people believe that they are above that, and they don’t need to do that.”
Mr Waller stresses that he is trying to differentiate JBW from less reputable agencies by making sure staff behave in a respectful manner.
Integrity is a key word in the JBW mission statement, Mr Waller insists. “Don’t get me wrong, we make mistakes. But if you screw up . . . if you get something wrong because you inherently didn’t follow the values of the organisation then you’re out.”
Nevertheless, JBW has attracted some fierce criticism, including in a 2014 investigation by BBC Television’s Panorama documentary, in which a bailiff was secretly filmed misleading debtors and at one point threatening to “take the paint off your walls as well”. After the broadcast, JBW denied it was guilty of wrongdoing. The person filmed was a self-employed contractor to JBW, which cancelled the contract immediately.
Mr Waller was brought up in a small flat above a shop in London’s then impoverished East End, before the arrival of hipsters and tech founders brought in new businesses and lifestyles. “We grew up in surroundings where people didn’t have much, so it was really important to me that if enforcement agents are used in those surroundings, that they’re used correctly,” he says.
Another way Mr Waller attempts to differentiate JBW from rivals is in who he employs. Most JBW employees have no background in debt collection operations. The company looks for people with the kinds of skills generally needed in sales or customer service roles. “I have had some of my most successful hires out of PizzaExpress,” he says, because they can listen and talk to a range of people.
“You can teach people how to knock on someone’s door and ask them for money, and if they don’t pay, how to remove their vehicle or remove their TV,” Mr Waller says. “What you can’t teach people is how to be inherently good, to treat people with respect.”
Keeping good staff in such a stressful job is a challenge, but not necessarily a problem, argues Mr Waller. “When we bid for contracts, they say to me ‘what is the turnover of your staff’?” — a high number can be construed as failure to retain suitable people. Mr Waller’s response is to say: “We want it high. We don’t want people to be in this organisation who are not right for it.”
Mr Waller believes practices in enforcement are improving as the industry has “grown up”. He regards his rivals as divisions of FTSE-listed businesses such as Capita, G4S and Serco.
What he does dispute is any idea that enforcement has improved because of tighter regulation, rather than through entrepreneurs such as himself setting out to make the sector more accountable, more professional: “If it wasn’t for JBW, the industry may have got better, but it wouldn’t be where it is today.”
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