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The woman behind the women who convince people to pay up

Sydney Morning Herald
September 13, 2007

Sonia Ferlauto and her all-female team can't afford to be pushovers, writes Alison Aprhys.

Brawn has given way to brains in the business of recovering outstanding debts.

Think of debt collectors and images that might come to mind are of big blokes who use their muscle to threaten or intimidate defaulters into paying up.

But Sonia Ferlauto, director of Accelerated Collection Services, looks more like the boss of a cosmetics empire.

Her efforts have resulted in the company winning not just praise from clients but many small business awards.

It has won two categories in the Australian Micro Business Awards and been a finalist in the Telstra Small Business Awards.

Ms Ferlauto agreed that in a traditionally male-dominated profession, ACS's all-woman team was as much a surprise as it was a success.

"Yes, it does challenge many people's perceptions," she said. "When I commenced business in 1995 I didn't start out with an all-woman team in mind, it's just how it turned out."

The 2003 Sensis Business Index reported that a major concern for small- and medium-sized businesses was cash flow and late payment of bills. Bad debts cost Australian businesses hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In NSW more than $520 million was owed to public sector agencies for goods and services rendered to businesses.

With consumer and corporate debt surpassing this figure many times over, it's no wonder debt collection is big business.

"I didn't plan to be a debt collector," Ms Ferlauto said. "I came into the industry through a series of office management roles and became interested in debt recovery."

Communication skills topped the list of desirable qualities for the collection business. "You need to be a good listener and a great negotiator," Ms Ferlauto said. "You are dealing with so many different types of personalities and you can't be a pushover."

Ms Ferlauto looks for staff who are highly organised and possess an eye for detail and the ability to remain focused and calm. "Collecting money can be emotional," she said. "If someone owes you money and they are not paying up, it's easy for you to get angry. But we don't get emotionally involved because it's our job to recover what's owed."

Ms Ferlauto said her greatest satisfaction was seeing the client paid. "People do get excited when we contact them to say we have succeeded because, by the time it comes to us, the client has done all they can and we are their last resort," she said.

However, if Ms Ferlauto does not collect she does not get paid.

Ean Joyce co-ordinates the primary course covering debt collection the Financial Services (Commercial Agency) Certificate III at Blacktown TAFE.

"We have been running the course at Blacktown since 1989," he said.

Students with the ability to be analytical and persistent and those who could "read" people were most likely to succeed. Certificate modules included data retrieval, health and safety, workplace documents, law for commercial agents and trust accounting.