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Leader puts his firm’s focus on people

President Mark Davitt has grown collection agency ConServe to 324 employees

Against the advice of his parents, Mark Davitt set out for Boston after graduating from college in 1979 and spending $800 on a car.
In Boston the car was stolen and stripped. Eventually it was recovered, but Davitt did not have the money for towing and impound charges. He borrowed $200 from a friend to retrieve it, but it still lacked wheels, the dashboard was stripped, and the battery and alternator were gone.
“I needed a job,” recalls Davitt, president of Continental Service Group Inc., a Perinton-based collection agency for higher education that does business as ConServe.
“I looked in the newspaper and saw this ad that said, ‘Earn What You’re Worth.’ It was with a collection agency. I had no idea what collections was about, but I did know I needed money to buy wheels and tires to put the car back together.”
Davitt quickly discovered what receivables management entailed. He has made a career in the industry, building ConServe and its 324 employees into a leader in debt recovery.
“We’re in the human relations business,” the 52-year-old Mendon resident says. “We’re dealing with money, but we’re dealing with people who are having problems with money. Money is very personal in our society.
“When people fall off the straight and narrow, they get behind in their obligations. That can become emotionally charged. Then here comes a complete stranger, a third-party debt collector, who calls and says, ‘I want to talk with you about a very personal matter.’ Our staff has to understand that these are human beings. That’s part of our training.” Wayne Holly, president of Sage, Rutty & Co. Inc., has been Davitt’s friend for 20 years. “If you were to figure out how much time he puts in, he’s probably making about $1.50 an hour,” Holly says. “He works awfully hard. He works hard and he works smart. He deserves every bit of his success.” Davitt founded ConServe in 1985 after working four years at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he implemented an in-house loan and receivables management program.
“I thought I had a pretty good perspective on the higher education marketplace, having seen collection work and receivables management and then living on the inside in education,” he says.
Davitt would not disclose ConServe’s revenues.
The company has increased its work force by some 225 percent in the last five years. It employed 100 people when it was awarded the first of two contracts from the U.S. Department of Education. That contract was limited to firms with average revenues of $6 million over three years.
“The revenue growth has matched our head-count growth,” Davitt says. “We’re going along pretty well.”
Receivables management is the only thing Davitt has done since his senior year at Hamilton College in Clinton, Oneida County. He was the assistant business manager for the school newspaper.
“I sold ad space to businesses in the area,” he says. “A good deal of my time was spent visiting them and saying, ‘Hey, you have to pay for this ad space.'”

A different path

His mom and dad wanted Davitt to pursue graduate work at Yale University, but Davitt wanted a break from academia.
“The provost of (Hamilton) college was a big hockey fan-I played hockey and lacrosse in college-and he said, ‘You’re going to Yale for graduate work.’ He was an old Yalie,” Davitt recalls. “I said, ‘OK, but I want to take some time off.'”
The provost advised against that. Davitt talked to his father, who shared the provost’s opinion. Davitt bucked both of them.
“At that point in my life, Boston and San Francisco were my two meccas. I looked at the amount of money I had and said Boston. I went to Boston without any objective other than I’m going to take a year off and examine things, just have fun.”
He stayed two days with a friend in a dorm at Boston College, during which his car was taken. After getting it back and seeing the help-wanted promise of earning his worth, he accepted an offer from Central Adjustment Bureau Inc., a now-defunct collections agency based in Dallas. ”
I found an apartment, but they wanted a security deposit,” Davitt said. “The manager at this place I went to work at, knowing me for three days, reached in his pocket and personally gave me money. That made a big impact on me. It seemed like a very trusting thing to do for a stranger.”
Davitt got the apartment and had his car hauled there without wheels.
“From there I was immersed in the business,” he says. “I started calling people to say, ‘You’re behind on your accounts. What can we do to get this matter resolved?’
“I remember one person called me back afterward and said thank you. It was another seminal moment where the person appreciated what I was able to do to help get them out of a jam. Again, that made an impact on me.”
Within two months after he joined Central Adjustment Bureau, the company started a management training program. Davitt was selected to participate. He was sent to offices in six cities to learn aspects of the business, then to White Plains in 1981 to open an office.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “I can remember sitting in the Holiday Inn in Elmsford, N.Y., conducting interviews for people. In the evenings I would go around with a real estate broker, looking at potential office space.”

Coming to Rochester

The business did well, Davitt says. But his wife, Maureen, an Oneida County native, missed Upstate New York.
“She expressed a desire to move back upstate,” Davitt says. “That opportunity came with RIT.”
He arrived in Rochester in late 1982 to be the associate bursar at RIT.
“That was wonderful,” he says. “Everybody should have an opportunity to work in academia. The most rewarding thing was, every year you are overwhelmed with a whole new crop of kids and brand-new expectations. Being in touch with that flux is really neat. It prevents hardening of the attitudes when you’re constantly exposed to that.”
After implementing the receivables management program, Davitt approached school administrators about moving additional services in-house. The administration resisted.
“In hindsight, they were right,” he says.
Nonetheless, he left to start ConServe.
“I didn’t have any clients, but I had an idea,” he says.
“My father had always said, ‘Learn how things work, and then improve it,’ because there’s always an opportunity for incremental improvement. I started the company; then I started going around to schools and said, ‘I would like to do this work for you.'”
ConServe does work for RIT, the University of Rochester, Nazareth College of Rochester, St. John Fisher College and Monroe Community College, as well as out-of-state schools such as Harvard University and Stanford University.

Helping people

Davitt had not thought of the collection business as a way to help people until he joined Central Adjustment Bureau. That, he says, is the philosophy at ConServe.
“That’s our mantra today: How many people we are helping, and specifically how we are helping them,” he says.
It is not easy.
“It is difficult work. It can be very challenging. It’s a human relations business. We’re also a black-box industry. We have access to personal, non-public information. It’s private. We can’t even acknowledge that people owe money,” he says.
ConServe associates deal primarily with those who owe money on college loans.
“Some people equate us with repossession,” Davitt says. “Some people equate us with direct collectors, people who are collecting on rental furniture or things of that nature. We are a professional debt collection service. We are in the creditors’ rights industry.”
Debtors’ responses to ConServe calls vary.
“Some people will say things you’ll only hear in an R-rated movie,” Davitt says. “Some people will actually cry. Some people will want to get out of the uncomfort-ableness of the (phone) situation.
“And some people will say, ‘I’m in a jam. What can we do?’ The opportunity for our staff is to help people chart a path to getting out of this situation.”
The common theme from those who are called by ConServe representatives is aggression, Davitt says.
“The next thing we get is seeking sympathy,” he says.
If the people ConServe calls are willing to cooperate, Davitt says, there is a solution.
“The only people we cannot help on a voluntary basis are those who have the means and ability to pay and just don’t want to,” he says. “Then we have to facilitate taking the money from them. For everyone else, we can work out different payment plans. We can rehabilitate their loans.”
Davitt is no longer directly involved with those calls.
“My staff doesn’t let me, because I take too long talking,” he jokes.
ConServe was among several firms awarded contracts in May by the Department of Education. Its contract is for five years.
“To get the company to where he’s gotten it to now, he had to make some big investments along the way, in people and in technology,” Holly says. “And that was when the contracts were not a sure thing.
“He had a vision; he was building it. He knew if he did that, the contracts would come and it would grow from there.”
ConServe also is involved with guaranty agencies that insure repayment of student loans.
“There are other companies that have contracts with these clients,” Davitt says. “Some are very large companies, with 30,000 employees. And they do more than just this particular market space.
“We’re specialists in this (higher-education) space. That’s where we focus our energies.”
William Kreienberg, a partner at Rochester law firm Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP who heads its closely held business practice, is ConServe’s corporate attorney.
“When I started working with Mark, it was a very small organization with limited scope,” Kreienberg says. “He has developed a world-class higher education collection firm. He’s very concerned about culture, his people and doing it the right way.”

Upstate native

Davitt was born in Cazenovia, Madison County. His father, James, was a teacher. He also coached football, basketball and baseball, and later became the distribution manager at a local frozen food warehouse for Empire Freezers of Syracuse Inc.
The Davitts moved to Syracuse when Mark was 4, then to Camillus in 1970.
ConServe’s leader was an All-American in lacrosse at West Genesee High School and played lacrosse and hockey at Hamilton College.
“I was very good,” he says unapologetically. “Now, I’m not going to suffer from old athlete’s disease where the older I am, the better I was. But, yeah, I’m good.”
He was a high school teammate of Syracuse University lacrosse coach John Desko, winner of five NCAA Division I national championships.
“Mark is terrific,” Holly says. “Mark could be a standup comedian. He has a great wit. He’s tremendously funny. On the other hand, on the business side of things, he’s very competitive. He was a very good athlete in high school and college. There’s a competitive side of him that is unstoppable.
“He’s very much an entrepreneur from the standpoint of he’s willing to take risks, significant risks.”
Away from the office, Davitt spends most of his time with his family at a cottage on Keuka Lake. He also likes to play golf.
“I just love Keuka Lake,” he says. “We have ‘F cubed’; it’s the forced family fun.”
Kreienberg, who meets with Davitt several times each year to discuss business strategy, describes him as a careful business owner.
“He has his company positioned to do really great things in the next five years,” Kreienberg says. “It’s a real Monroe County success story. He wants to be headquartered here. He’s finding good people here. He trains them. He’s all about retaining his people. I think there are bigger things to come.”

Mark Davitt
Title: President, Continental Service Group Inc.
Age: 52
Home: Mendon
Education: B.A., psychology, Hamilton College, Oneida County, 1979
Family: Wife, Maureen; daughters Megan, 25, Marissa, 23, and MacKenzie, 19
Hobbies: Golf
Quote: “We control our destiny. If you’re the star performer, does that mean you won’t be fired? It’s very unlikely you’ll be fired if you’re the star performer.”

rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

08/14/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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