BLOOMINGTON -- It's Afni Inc.'s 75th birthday this year. In lieu of gifts, here's a suggestion that its executives are sure to love: Stop just calling it a "collections agency."
Afni did, in fact, start as a collections agency in downtown Bloomington in 1936. But its growth in the past 15 years, from 300 to 6,000 U.S. employees, has been powered by a second arm of the company called "customer care," making and taking calls, emails and other digital communications for cellphone carriers and other clients.
Afni has added three U.S. call centers in the past nine months, and has grown by about 1,000 employees in the last year and a half. That growth includes almost 170 new hires in Bloomington, where Afni has its headquarters at 404 Brock Drive and two call centers. It is hosting 75th anniversary events this week.
Most of the company's Twin City employees do indeed work in "receivables management," helping produce what one Afni executive says is an "iceberg" effect, where one visible part of the business does not convey its entirety. Afni is now McLean County's sixth-largest private employer, with 918 local employees.
"The community itself just thinks the company has never changed. But it's changed radically over the last 15 years," said Afni Chairman Bruce Griffin.
Afni's debt collection arm struggled during the recession. Yes, there was more debt to collect, but also less ability for consumers to pay back that debt, said Afni President and CEO Ronald Greene.
Offsetting that was customer care, which Afni has only been doing since 1992. Growth in that area resulted from Afni leaders deciding to focus on just a few key industries -- first telecommunications, later insurance -- even hiring employees with those backgrounds to help "deliver a better product," said Greene.
"We weren't trying to be all things to all people," he said. "We know our industries as well as our clients do."
Afni's hiring policies and extensive training also give the firm a competitive advantage, Griffin said, though attracting the right employees has been one of the company's greatest challenges.
Call center jobs have a less-than-glamorous reputation. In McLean County, the problem has been amplified because unemployment is typically so low, although access to university students helps, Greene said.
At Afni's call center at 1310 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the average employee is in college or just out, though some older workers have recently re-entered the workforce, said director Steve Smith.
Ninety percent of Afni's employees are full time, said Greene, and there is a lot of turnover. Entry-level call center wages are between $9 and $11, plus performance-based incentives and bonuses and benefits.
Correcting the misconception that "Afni only does collections" is key, said Greene, especially in Bloomington-Normal. The 918 employees here include more than 200 managers and professional services employees, such as IT and finance staff, with 144 promotions given locally in the past year.
"We have a lot of other positions besides (collections), and if they think we're only a collections agency, then they may not even consider applying here," Greene said.
Afni, which was pacesetter for the local United Way campaign in 2009, is a "tremendous community partner" that stood out in recent years when it created local jobs during the downturn, said Charlie Moore, CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce.
"That's significant in a recovering economy," Moore said.
As for the future, Greene said to expect "more of the same," with Afni incorporating even more technology into existing services. And after a pilot initiative, the company just launched a work-from-home program to help attract new employees.
"We want to make sure the community and everyone we encounter ... understands and represents us as who we really are, rather than just one leg of the stool," said Griffin.
Reporter Ryan Denham can be reached at twitter.com/ryanpantagraph
A quick look at Afni Inc.'s 75-year history:
1936: Louis "Red" Slaven buys H.A. Slaven's Collection Bureau in downtown Bloomington.
1976: Earl and Suzanne Anderson buy company from Slaven.
1985: Expansion across U.S. begins; name changed to Anderson Financial Network Inc.
1992: Expands beyond collections into customer care/interactions.
1995: Employees Bruce Griffin and Ronald Greene buy company.
1997-2001: New centers open in Bloomington, Peoria, Arizona, Kentucky and Alabama. Name changes to Afni.
2005-11: More facilities open or expand in Arizona, Texas, Florida and Colorado. There are 14 total today.