Healthy collections: North American Credit Services expands Chattanooga campus

Healthy collections: North American Credit Services expands Chattanooga campus

April 20th, 2014 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Dallas Bunton, senior executive for North American Credit Services Inc., talks about the expansion of his medical collections business.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

COMPANY AT A GLANCE

• Name: North American Credit Services Inc.

• Owner: Dallas S. Bunton, who is also president and CEO

• Staff: 275 employees

• Clients: 400 physicians and 60 hospitals, including larger healthcare systems - Adventist Health System (AHS), Adventist Health Care (AHC), UNC Johnson Healthcare and Catholic Health Partners.

• Location: Corporate campus at Walker Road and Lee Highway

• Services: Billing, receivables management and collections for the health care industry

• Size: More than $1.8 billion of bills are processed by the company a year

Growing up in a two-bedroom home as one of eight siblings in rural North Carolina, Dallas Bunton learned early in life what it was like to be poor and have bill collectors knocking at the door.

Bunton recalls the most successful debt collector in Graham, N.C. was a man from Beneficial Finance who graciously talked with Bunton's mom and worked out a repayment plan to recover the delinquent debt.

"I never dreamed I'd be a bill collector, but I always thought if I was, I wanted to be like that guy because he was so nice to people and ended up getting paid back far more than other collectors who were more threatening and mean," Bunton said.

It's a lesson Bunton has used to build his North American Credit Services Inc., into one of the country's biggest independent medical collection services.

At age 64, Bunton is still growing his 275-employee business in Chattanooga. North American Credit is building a new $1.2 million office to handle more bills, collections and accounts receivables in the growing health care industry. The 10,000-square-foot structure under construction along Walker Road is the seventh building Bunton has built or bought for his corporate campus off Lee Highway. Once completed by August, the office should help add another 115 employees to the company over time, Bunton said.

The new office comes a year after Bunton acquired a nearby junk yard on Lee Highway and converted into a parking lot for another 75 employees.

"I've always tried to run a company that treats people like you want to be treated, or you don't stay with us very long," Bunton said. "It's a model that has worked."

Bunton, who left home with only 37 cents at age 17 to join the military, learned early in his career about debt collections as both a JAG investigator in the military and later as the owner of a check collections business in North Carolina.

At age 32, he was recruited to Chattanooga to run North American Credit Services, then owned by the nonprofit Adventist Health system to collect bills for Adventist hospitals.

The small McCallie Avenue office had only eight employees. Two other workers were in Texas. The company was $834,000 in debt at the time.

But Bunton quickly grew the business and erased the debt by 1985. The entrepreneurial manager was eager to expand the business beyond medical bill collections, but Adventist Health was not looking to broaden into more for-profit, diverse businesses, Bunton recalled.

"I have always been a visionary and wanted to provide more services to hospitals and their physicians than Adventist Health was interested in doing at the time," he said.

In 1992, Adventist Health managers called Bunton to arrange a meeting at an East Ridge Shoney's where he initially thought he might be dismissed for his persistent talk about diversifying North American Credit. Instead, the nonprofit parent offered to sell the business to Bunton, which he was able to do a year later.

The debt collection portion of the business he acquired now represents only about 20 percent of the work done by North American Medical Services Inc. Most of the $1.8 billion a year of bills and claims handled by the company and its affiliates is for billing or handling accounts receivables for physicians and hospitals across the country.

But the growth of the company hasn't always been steady. In 2003, North American Credit lost a key physician group that changed its operating and billing procedure to electronic health records that didn't match up with the business plan for North American. In response, 30 employees were moved out of one office building and about half of those had to be laid off.

While Bunton has diversified the business into handling most aspects of doctor and hospital billing, patient records have not been part of the business plan.

"The model has been built for customer service throughout the customer billing cycle," said Rob Hayes, a 30-year industry veteran who serves as vice president of marketing at North American Credit. "We train our people to contact people early on. We treat other people the way we want to be treated -- and it works."

The company serves hospitals ranging from the 27-bed Jellico Hospital near the Kentucky and Tennessee line to the 1,177-bed Florida Hospital main campus in Orlando.

Adventist Health System, from which the company was born more than three decades ago, still accounts for majority of the hospital business.

The company makes its money only when it collects from the patient, insurance companies or other third party representation for clients. Thousands of calls, both personal and automated, are made each day from the company's Chattanooga campus. North American Credit's phone system is capable of making 500,000 calls a week, although far fewer than that are now made each week, Bunton said.

"It's still our people that make the difference," he said.

The North American Credit owner, who had open heart surgery last year, says he has a succession plan to keep the business in his family.

"I regularly get offers to sell the business," he said. "But for all of its challenges, it's still a lot of fun."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.