Bill Holt, Marla Merritt and Tina Mead are sort of like the three musketeers - they've been in business together for 25 years, sharing lows and highs and battles.
And recently, a victory. Their latest venture, a risk assessment and payment management provider that serves orthodontists, dentists and veterinarians, earned a spot on INC magazine's list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies for the fifth year in a row.
OrthoBanc has grown about 20 percent annually during the past five years, said Holt, OrthoBanc president and CEO. The company employs 47 people and is handling risk assessment, drafting and payment management for 250,000 patients. That adds up to about $600 million in current patient payments.
"I don't think any of us dreamed we'd handle as many clients as we are handling," Holt said.
The company manages accounts for about 3,000 customers across three brands: OrthoBanc, DentalBanc and PaymentBanc. They focus on monthly, recurring payments, like that $5,000 for Jimmy's braces. The company doesn't offer third-party financing, instead solely managing the loans made by clients, who assume the risk.
The company has collected about $2.1 billion since it was founded in 2001. A team of 21 call center employees does the on-the-ground account management, handling around 1,000 calls a day. OrthoBanc sends sells risk assessments, sends billing statements and makes the calls when a patient misses a payment.
Revenues hit $5 million in 2009 and grew to $8.7 million in 2012, according to Inc. The company is the seventh-fastest growing in the Chattanooga region and the 57th in Tennessee.
But times haven't always been good for Holt, Merritt and Mead. OrthoBanc was born on the heels of a failed credit bureau, after Holt was recruited to expand the Credit Bureau of Knoxville into the Chattanooga region.
"We started from scratch and built it up, but from 1989 to 2005 the credit reporting industry changed a lot and businesses like ours, independent credit bureaus, really no longer exist," he said.
The credit bureau work shifted back to Knoxville, and Holt, Merritt and Mead were left with just four people and a big empty building on Chapman Road.
"It was really kind of sad," Holt said, adding that they let about 12 people go. "It was a low point."
OrthoBanc, officially founded in 2001, was in its infancy.
"We've grown up in this position together," said Merritt, director of sales and marketing, adding that she, Holt and Mead, who serves as director of operations, have established a rhythm of open dialogue over the years. All three grew up in Chattanooga.
When the company started to take off in 2003, Holt relied on automation to keep growing.
"We thought if we could get 500 clients, that would be all we could handle," he said. "But as the business has grown, we've found ways to automate tasks and do more with the same number of staff."
The years of 20 percent growth started about the same time as the recession - the company's first Inc. award was given in 2009 for 2008's business - and that wasn't a coincidence, Holt said.
"Our background in the credit bureau world told us this day was coming," he said. "We kept watching all these bad mortgages being made. We were looking at credit reports and thinking, 'These people aren't going to get a mortgage' and next thing you know a mortgage shows up on their credit file."
They sat down and had a meeting to develop a strategy to get through the downturn.
"We came out of that meeting with one thought, and that was, 'We're not going to participate in the recession,'" Holt said.
So OrthoBanc continued to aggressively add new customers despite the recession, and that's been key to sustaining such rapid growth over the last five years, Merritt said.
"[During the recession] each of our customers were affected and were losing orthodontic cases, but we continued to add customers," she said, "and now what we're seeing is that our individual customers' business is coming back some, and as a result of that we can continue to see growth really without adding many new customers now."
They set a company goal to make the Inc. list three years in a row, Holt said. But after year three, employees said they wanted to earn a spot on the list again for year four.
"I said I don't like the number four," Holt said. "I like three or five. So if we get four we have to get five."
Two years later, the first four awards are up on the wall with room for one more.
Still, the rapid growth is limiting in some ways, Holt said.
"We have a ton of those [automation] projects right now that we really need to work on, but the day-to-day stuff that we do is keeping us from advancing those projects," he said. "So that's a little difficult. But we'll get through."
"We always do," Mead added.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or email@example.com.