Pauline Kussart travels unconventional road to collections

When Pauline Kussart, president of Madison-based Stark Collection Agency Inc., was first looking to buy a business here, she sought the advice of three business executives. Each assured her that it didn’t matter that she didn’t have a business background. “It’s what you put into it,” they said. Her challenges, they warned, would be dealing with employees, as well as rules and regulations. “They were right,” she acknowledges.

Kussart’s road to collections was a bit unconventional. One of seven children, she grew up on a Fond du Lac dairy farm. “Everyone should experience farm life,” she said. “It teaches you so much. You never know from one day to the next if you’ll have an insect infestation, disease, weather — it’s just nonstop.” She later decided to switch her focus from four-legged animals to two-legged humans and spent much of her life as a nurse.

She developed an early interest in politics, thanks to her father, a politically active farmer, and she met her current husband, a former chief of staff for a U.S. congressman, while working on a political campaign. That relationship took her to Washington, D.C., where in addition to nursing, she did some political fundraising. Upon her return to Madison, Kussart left nursing to become the finance director for U.S. Rep. Scott Klug. When he stepped out of the political limelight in 1998, she stepped into the collections domain.

“The [Stark] agency met all my criteria for purchasing a business,” she said. “Cost, my interest level, its reputation in the community, a staff that could carry me through until I really learned the business, and the location.” But while it had a long history in Madison (since 1948), the company was failing.

Kussart had no business experience whatsoever when she purchased the company — no background in collections, no knowledge of industry rules and regulations, no IT or HR experience, and no accounting background. “I had to learn QuickBooks and how to read P&Ls,” she admits.

The Stark Collection Agency now has more than 30 employees who work every day to help people improve their credit and make good on financial obligations. The agency specifically works in the telecommunications and government sectors (circuit and municipal courts, traffic fines, and ordinance violations). Most (85%) of the cases it handles are consumer-debtrelated; the rest are commercial.

Kussart says most people fall on hard times through no fault of their own due to divorce, health care expenses, job losses, gambling issues, or addictive behaviors. Even farmers, whom she says have “the best paying value system out there,” can fall behind on their bills due to circumstances completely beyond their control, like weather.

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Her industry faces daily challenges as well. “Back in 1948, contingency fees were about 50%. Now, you’re lucky if you get 6% or 10% commission.”

And compliance is a huge issue. Whether federal, state, or local, rules governing the industry are changing daily, she notes, and they conflict with each other just as often. It’s gotten so confusing that Kussart hired an attorney to keep things straight. “A collection agency my size shouldn’t be able to support a general counsel,” she notes, “but to me, I’d much rather have an attorney here to lower my risk than not. If I get sued from a class-action lawyer, it could be the end of me.”

The stereotype of thugs knocking down doors to collect bad debt has done a great disservice to the industry, she says. “There are some agencies that are rogue, but for the most part, 99% of us are ethical, respectful, upscale companies. Without us, the costs you’d pay for services would skyrocket.”

Thick skin is imperative in the collections business, and Kussart attributes the company’s low turnover rate to a good working environment with backup support, good benefits, and a relaxation lounge employees can escape to after an especially brutal phone call.

“Even if a caller threatens your life, our staff knows to maintain a certain demeanor, so very few calls escalate. We are an extension of our clients,” she explained, “and must always be respectful.

“While the general public may think we’re ogres and money grabbers, the fact of the matter is that we really do care.”

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