The lazy palm trees out front draw a sharp contrast to the serious business going on inside: debt collection.
From a remarkably small and welcoming office, Jack Brown's 35-year-old company places those infamous calls that begin with the preamble: "This is an attempt to collect a debt."
"I'm a debt collector," he says with a smile.
Brown opened the doors to Gulf Coast Collection Bureau in hopes of giving the public a rare glimpse into the most reviled part of the financial world. He said he has nothing to hide.
"There aren't too many positive news stories about debt collectors," he said.
We expected a big, corporate boiler room operation. Instead, we found a bright, clean, and remarkably small office.
"We've got about 35 employees, and I think that's one of the biggest things that surprises folks," he said. Brown said most debt collectors are small businesses, not gaping corporate call centers.
Brown said one of the biggest misconceptions is that his debt agents are all young, inexperienced throat grabbers.
"No, I'm 60," said debt collector Martha Shope. "I have gray hairs… I'm an old lady!"
Shope, clad in a sweater, has a gentle voice that seemed to disarm the people she was calling. For the past two years, she's placed 150 calls a day. Despite the stress of stepping into a potentially contentious situation, she said she thoroughly enjoys both her job and the work environment.
"I get excited when you get something paid off," she says. "We're like family here."
The cubicles were as quiet as they were surprising. In Brown's company, each employee is required to sign a "Collector's Pledge."
"It basically says we treat everybody the way we want to be treated," he said. "There is no reason you should be yelling."
But there is that stain. Debt collection is notorious for nastiness and even threats by phone. Its practices have been the subject of lawsuits. One such case involved recording that said, "I'm going to call you until you die."
Brown attributes the industry's stain to shady fly-by-night outfits that dip in and out of the business.
"Most of these people that are the bad apples and the bad actors are criminals, not debt collectors," he said.
Brown said he is working to weed out those bad apples with tougher state regulation. For example, he wanted to bar felons form being debt collectors.
For consumers, Brown said it's important to take a collector's call seriously -- even if their tone isn't quite as cordial as Martha Shope's.
Critics agree. Hanging up is the wrong tactic.
"That could be a very, very expensive mistake," said personal finance author Gerri Detweiler, whose articles appear on Credit.com.
Detweiler said consumers have to settle a debt collector's claim one way or another. They should demand proof of the debt, and get everything in writing. She said the consumer must ask that a settled debt be *removed* from your credit report—not just updated.
"You have to get the collection account removed if you want to see your credit score increase," she said.
Brown said his company updates information weekly -- by computer, delivering debt data to the various reporting agencies.
"It's all logged," he said.
Brown admitted that debt collectors work on commission.
"If they get the accounts resolved, the dollars will follow," he said.
But, he said that if there's been a billing mistake and someone other than the consumer should be paying (i.e. insurance), the company can still be rewarded, "by doing what should be done on the account."
The Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, which represents agents like Brown, has advice for consumers on its website: http://www.askdoctordebt.org.