Road tripping the lone star state
So far, I’ve spent my whole fellowship in ACCION Texas-Louisiana HQ in San Antonio. But, as the name implies, there’s a lot more to ACCION than this office. So I recently decided to take a road trip and visit some of the other offices. I visited Louisiana and blogged about it, and a few offices in Texas.
Here’s the Texas portion of my trip.
Dallas and Fort Worth
The Dallas office is the second most populous office. They have two Loan Officers and two Loan Processors, as well as a Vice President for North Texas Operations. The Fort Worth office is much newer, and only has one person there full time. It’s kind of hard to find (they’re on the second story of a large mall) but much more centrally located than most other offices.
Rod Douglas, the operations VP here, is responsible for loan production in North Texas, for working with the partners, and eventually for marketing and fundraising. As I’ve mentioned before, ACCION relies on donations to complete their budget, and marketing is a big challenge. The San Antonio office is excellent at raising funds – thanks primarily to the efforts of the VP of Development, Kay Simpson, and Janie Barrera, the founding president and CEO. But as an office gets larger, the need for a local presence and community investment grows.
That’s where Rod comes in. He was a banker for 30 years before serving as development director for a school in East Dallas for five years. Janie, in looking to fill this position, had many candidates with a financial background, but not with fundraising experience as well. A mutual friend said she knew someone just like that, and Rod joined the ACCION team in August.
George Cerna, one of the loan officers in Dallas, talked to me about the importance of the social and cultural parts of the job. George said you “want to develop a rapport with people. Especially in West Dallas. The Hispanic community is less trusting of others and they should be. So you can’t just hand out a business card. You have to get to know that person. … People aren’t looking for a handout; they’re just looking for a little assistance right now. …We always give hope, even when we have to turn down a loan.”
Leticia Gutierrez, a Loan Processor, said that the personality of the Loan Officers is important for that reason. “Mayra (the Fort Worth Loan Officer) has a very good relationship with all of our clients. She builds that rapport so the client will continue to come back to ACCION….I can tell you that in my opinion, the key in this line of work is great customer service and a passion for what we do. Those two combinations can guarantee the client will be happy and you will enjoy what it is we do. “
Houston (North & West)
Houston is a two-office city, because the greater Houston area is almost 6 million people. Bridget Ross, the Loan Officer for the Houston North office, said she thinks the metropolitan area could easily take a third Loan Officer; “there’s that big of a need.”
Houston, like all ACCION offices, gets clients from all walks of life. One of the biggest challenges Houston’s clients face, though, is credit problems. That’s one reason that Ismenia Fletcher, the Hispanic Markets Manager, says microfinance organizations are so important; “people have to start or re-build their credit history. It’s not just for people with a little taqueria who want to grow it bigger, but people who… have the capacity to pay back, but don’t have credit history.”
Shirley Brooks, the Regional Director here, said that some clients get involved in damaging credit situations “because they think they have no other options. We are the other option.”
Bridget states that one frustration is people who come to her after they’ve spent all their money. “People come and say ‘if I had money I wouldn’t be coming to you.’ That’s the wrong way of going about it. It’s always better to use a lender’s money… it helps you leverage your capital, because lenders then see that you have something to fall back on if you hit a crisis…and then you build a relationship with the lender. …If you come to us before the crisis, we can help you more – not just with capital, but with resources too.”
One of the other major challenges for clients is financial literacy. As Shirley puts it; “just because they know how to do work… like fix cars, doesn’t mean they know how to run a business. … How should you price your work? How do you balance your financials?”
That’s why financial education is so important. As Shirley said; “credit without education is junk.” ACCION provides that education in a variety of ways.
Throughout an application, the ACCION officer gives guidance to the applicant on their potential to get a loan and on what they can do to improve their credit. Sarah Kuntz, the Community Outreach Coordinator, said “One client told me ‘Oh, I didn’t know why I was rejected by such and such a bank, but now I understand that.’ … Someone else told me ‘I’m so happy; this is the first time … I’ve signed a legal document where I really know what I’m signing.’ …It’s definitely a lot of education. A lot of people don’t know what credit is, how credit works, that they have to separate their business and personal finances, that they can’t be overextended in debt…”
If someone wants more detailed financial or credit coaching, ACCION refers them to one of their partners who specialize in exactly that, usually for free. In Houston, those partners are Money Management International, Credit Coalition, and Family Services of Greater Houston.
In Houston and New Orleans there is one more tool to improve financial literacy: the IDA program. This is a program that provides business training and a support network for clients who own or are starting a business. They get expert mentors, who are retired business owners themselves. The program also encourages a saving culture by matching savings, thanks to a partnership with Capital One. This is the first business IDA program, at least in Texas, and it’s currently in its second year. The program was created by a partnership of ACCION Texas-Louisiana, Money Management International, SCORE, with support from the African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston. It was funded by Capital One.
I think Bridget expressed the impact of that knowledge best. She told me that she’s “passionate for people in business because it’s a faith walk. …People come in totally discouraged but leave encouraged, even though I had to turn down their loan application, at this time. You can’t put a price on that… They know they make better decisions with information.”
And that help is appreciated. Sarah told me “I think that’s because people really appreciate that we gave them an opportunity when no one believed in them. I think that’s why they keep coming back to ACCION.”