Jamie Waller: How I cleaned up debt collecting

Jamie Waller rejected the threatening ex-bouncer approach to debt collection and relied instead on persuasive ex-salesmen. By its second year, his company had hit £4.2m in sales.

Jamie Waller, 30, became a bailiff as a last resort. He had left school at 16, trying his hand at window cleaning and selling second-hand cars. But after two years, "I was back where I started", he says. "I had heard that being a bailiff was a good way to make money without needing any qualifications." Little did he realise that within ten years it would have made him a millionaire and landed him on TV.

He applied to one of London's top "debt enforcement agencies", but was rejected as too young. So he marched into the head office and "told them I would be good at the job". The firm tried him out, and he raked in huge commissions in his first year. "They eventually offered me a supervisor role. At 19 I was managing people who'd been there for ten years." Waller puts his success down to his sales background. "The other bailiffs were mostly 'doorman types', hired for their physical presence. But being a bailiff is like being a salesman you have to persuade people to part with their cash."

Despite his success, Waller was not happy at the firm. He left and went travelling for a year. Sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico, he decided to form his own bailiff company. In need of start-up capital, he returned to his old job and used his spare time to find a business partner and put a company together. "In those days all you needed was a computer system, some clamps and a few staff." He earned good commissions, even featuring in a BBC documentary. And after five months, the 22-year-old Waller left to set up on his own. His old bosses "were furious". It "was the most challenging professional moment of my life".

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But he'd made the right move. The new firm, Wisehill, grew quickly. "The hardest thing is persuading the first clients, but the BBC show was a massive help." After a year, Wisehill was taking in £1m a year. But Waller's partner was "a playboy character who drove a Ferrari and only turned up to sign off expenses". So Waller left. He had to start from scratch again but now "I had no doubts it would work". Clients from his old firm followed him to JBW Group and he made the company "completely as I wanted it".

"There was so much wrong with the old industry that needed to be changed." He made a point of hiring people with sales backgrounds. He also built good relations with the police, using them to resolve disputes rather than "build up a private army like the old-school firms". JBW hit £2.4m in sales by its second year. Waller was still receiving threats of violence he was even stabbed by a rival yet it "just made me more determined to succeed". He implemented a City and Guilds-accredited training course and upgraded JBW's computers. "That might sound basic, but before JBW Group most bailiff firms were not really looking at training or IT." It all paid off JBW made £10m in sales in 2009. He bought two smaller rivals this year and is in talks with two more. "The industry has changed the days of the dodgy ex-bouncers are over."

To those who question how he can make money from others' misery, Waller says: "Society needs an endgame for people who don't pay debts. If someone is poor and genuinely can't pay a bill there will be nothing for us to take. But some people seem to think they don't need to pay."

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.