General Service Bureau
An Interview with Bob Leavitt, President and CEO of General Service Bureau
By Beau Robinson and Jenny Tan, Creighton University MBA students
Ask any employee at General Service Bureau (GSB) what their mission statement is and they’ll reply without hesitation, “Enhancing the Financial Well Being of Others.” So how does GSB enhance the well being of others, one might ask? Through faster collection recoveries and better service for clients and their patients. Founded in 1946, GSB has been able to grow and become a leader in the healthcare receivables management industry by simply doing business the right way and treating customers with respect. In 2007, GSB earned the prestigious Better Business Bureau (BBB) Integrity Award.
We had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Bob Leavitt about how he became the President and CEO of such and admirable company and the ethical challenges that he faces in an industry that has seen its fair share of bad press. Here is what we learned: We were greeted at the door by a bright-eyed man who was amplified with excitement to share with a couple of inquiring students what General Service Bureau was all about. As we took a tour of the facility on the way to his office, there was something different about the environment and the vibe it exuded. People at GSB were calm, cool, and collected – but most importantly they seemed very happy at what they were doing. We started off the interview by trying to gain an understanding of Leavitt’s background and values.
Tell us about your past. How did you end up living and thriving in Omaha?
Arriving in Omaha at the age of three, I had no idea I would one day become a model business owner in this thriving Midwest city. I grew up in a close-knit family but money was tight and I learned to make sacrifices. After attending college for only two years at Nebraska Wesleyan, I left school. My family didn’t have a lot of money at that time so I had to balance work and school and I found that to be difficult. I ended up quitting after2years. After leaving college, I worked a construction job and later found my self being swept away to the Northeast to start a record store. While life out on my own was going well, I was later persuaded to come back to Omaha by my wife, whom I met during my abbreviated stay in college.
How did you get involved with the collection business?
My father began working for the founder of this company with the expectation that he would gain full operational control within five years. The founder died only one and a half years after my dad started and then my dad chose to continue to run the company and later purchased it. When I returned to Omaha after selling my record store, my father had a job lined up for me but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the bait. Like most young adults, I hadn’t grown up with dreams of becoming a bill collector but after hearing my dad’s sales pitch, I agreed to join the business. I told him, “Okay, I’ll try it for 6 months and then we’ll talk.” My father had plans of changing the techniques used by collection agencies and this was the key point of his sales pitch that convinced me to join the business. I agreed with my father’s vision and felt that if we could engage people in conversation and work to find out why people weren’t paying their debts, we had a good chance at eventually getting money from our customers.
Do you remember what your first day on the job was like?
My first day on the job included an important discussion with my father. I remember him telling me, “all of these people who owe money, they are good people. If you can figure out what the problem is with paying, then you’ll be able to help them pay their debts.” That was an important discussion because it showed me that my father was very serious about listening to people and working with them. As simple as that might sound, that is precisely what I’ve done to build my business. I simply listened to customers and worked to understand their point of view. It was a different way of approaching the collection business but after only six months, I was one of the top collectors.While many of the other collectors engaged in practices associated with the “old school” way of collecting debts, I didn’t bother with using strong arm tactics or rudely hanging up on customers. The only thing I was doing was talking to people and this way of talking led to success. It wasn’t long and this new philosophy was catching on with my coworkers and eventually those collectors who used aggressive collection tactics either changed their ways or started to leave the company.
Who is your mentor and why?
My Dad. He was a big national trade association guy and one of the founding board members of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Nebraska. Another mentor was a gentle man by the name of George Wruck. He was a business man, kind of an icon, who shared a similar philosophy of treating people with respect. My dad introduced Mr. Wruck to me early on in my career and he has had a very big influence on my work. Getting involved in the national trade association was also very influential. Being involved with that group showed me that there were other people around that shared a similar philosophy of treating people with respect. People most often heard about the stories presented by the media, the ones exposing the bad guys, and so it was important for me to learn about good people in the workplace. My high school track coach, Jim Hubschman, also impacted my career. Coach Hubschman taught me that track and field was more than just running; he taught life lessons – about being a good person. That was a very important lesson for me to learn.
What is the best piece of advice or lesson that your father ever gave you?
The greatest thing my dad ever gave me was nothing. I had to work my way up just like any other employee at GSB. I sat at the collection desk for eight years. In doing so I learned the importance of having discipline and setting goals. Family values were instilled in me and my sib lings. Knowing the difference between right and wrong and doing the right thing was simply a part of growing up. Now I work to do that with my business.
Your siblings are also a part of the management team at GSB – do you find that coming from the same family and having the same core values has been helpful in how your run the company? If so why?
Definitely. Family values were instilled in all of us at a very young age. Having the same mentality and vision makes the job a lot easier. It is wonderful to work with likeminded people. One of my greatest strengths is being able to recognize when I’m in over my head. I know when I need help and that’s the same way with my siblings. So we try to find the best person fit for the job to be in charge. We work well as a team together and I think a big part of that is sharing the same type of moral makeup. We care and it shows.
It is often said that there is something in the water in Omaha that makes it an ethical place to do business. What do you think this something is?
It all boils down to our Midwestern values. Relationships are very important to us. Our work environment at GSB promotes high ethical standards through consistent feedback and an inviting work space. This results in loyalty and a level of personal commitment that continues to deliver phenomenal recovery results and one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry.
What is something you try to do each day for your business?
One of the most important things I do on a day today basis is making sure that people buy in to what is being done at this company. Our mission statement is not taken lightly. I take pride in being extremely confident that each of our employees can tell you the mission statement when they are asked. It’s short, to the point, and anyone here can tell you what it is if you ask them. I meet with each new employee and always ask them to say the company’s mission statement. I believe that if the employees come to work with the mission statement in mind, they will be focused on helping people and excelling at their work. I also try to remain in touch with the company’s core values. Honesty, dignity, respect, and continuous improvement those are our core values. I feel what we are doing is helping the community and helping families. Everyone wins. It fits into our goal of enhancing the well being of others.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
For me the most rewarding part of my day is in knowing that I’m providing a livelihood for over 100 people, our employees. As for the employees, they get satisfaction in recovering money but also, if they do the job as required, they’ll feel good at helping people along the way, too. It speaks to personal satisfaction; they can go home at night and see that they helped people. The success of our approach is reflected by the fact we receive more letters of thanks than letters of complaints. Being recognized for our efforts can be fun, too. Winning the Integrity Award was a wonderful achievement. When you look at the judges, you realize you can’t fool them at all and so to win that award really means that we’re doing our jobs the right way.
What is the toughest ethical issue facing your company to day?
A big ethical issue that we wrestle with each day relates to our fees that we charge our customers. It used to be that we kept a larger percentage of what we collected; now our average fees have been reduced due to competition. But we struggle with charging customers who have signed on with us years ago a higher rate than what we are charging new customers. The rates are significantly different; they’re lower now because we have to be competitive with other bidders. You can only cut cost so much and so we struggle with what is the right thing to do. But I’ve taken a pro active approach and tell my existing customers that this is what is going on. We have actually gone in and cut fees for existing customers when we didn’t have to do so. I think it’s the right thing to do and that’s why we have faithful customers. I have always felt that going to our clients and being honest with them is the right thing to do no matter what. Customers really appreciate us being honest upfront about what is going on with their accounts. I feel that our proactive approach gives our customers every reason to not listen to the other guy who is trying to outbid us. We are all about partnership and long term relationships.
How are complaints handled at GSB?
When a complaint is filed at GSB, the entire management team is notified through email and everyone is made aware of the issue. There is a team leader assigned to investigate the issue to determine where the break down occurred and how to remedy the situation. Also, all our collectors have to go through a series of trainings, which is an ongoing process rather than an isolated event. Our in house compliance attorney ensures that our entire staff is aware of current litigation is sues. All agents participate in the professional certification program through our national trade organization, ACA International, and each of them has either attained their professional Collectors Certification or they are actively pursuing certification. Further, employees at GSB are constantly audited to determine if they are following the correct procedures. GSB can listen in on the re corded calls, follow key strokes, and use other tools designed to monitor the quality of our work.
What ethical challenges do you think young people are facing today?
Everyone is in it for the fast buck. How can I get there the quickest way possible, seems to be the mentality that young people carry. The idea of hard work seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the road. This attitude really speaks to so many people in my industry – these are the people who are giving our line of work a bad name. They bid at a price that can’t make them any money and they know it but it speaks to that whole issue of “I want it now” regardless of the consequences. In short, I think this “I want it now” attitude is really at the heart of the current credit problem.
Our time with Mr. Leavitt was extremely valuable and offered us a living, breathing perspective of business ethics in Omaha. His business ethics are an extension of his personal ethics and just as he remains committed to being a good person, he is committed to conducting his business with integrity. Perhaps the greatest lesson Mr. Leavitt was able to teach us is that it feels good to be ethical and in a world where an entity’s reputation is extremely important, constantly working to do things the right way is rewarded with business success, thank you notes, and a strong sense of satisfaction. Mr. Leavitt is a fine example of a person who can serve as a model for business ethics in Omaha and was undoubtedly well deserving of the 2007 Integrity Award. Mr. Leavitt’s commitment to excellence and his compassionate, ethical approach serve as a wonderful model for others to follow.