MADRID, Spain – Spain's economic woes are myriad but at least one firm is sitting pretty: a debt collection agency that has its henchmen wear tails and top hats to inflict an extra, attention-grabbing dose of embarrassment.
The company is called "El Cobrador del Frac," which translates as debt collector in tails. It's been around for 20 years, although things have never been so good since an economy that was once Europe's darling fell into near-recession over the past year.
Demand for its services is up 40 percent compared to last year and the firm plans to boost its staff of 500, spread throughout Spain and an office in Portugal, commercial director Juan Carlos Granda said.
The Madrid headquarters is a bustling hub of administrative staffers and burly men who visit homes and businesses, urging debtors to cough up dough. A sign near a group of telephone operators states the mission clearly: "Late-paying debtors, you are in for it."
"We think the crisis has only just begun. If we go on this way, we may have to open more offices," said Granda.
How do people react to such a dapper intruder? "There is a bit of everything. Some people feel shame, others don't. But what is clear is that no one likes it," Granda said.
Spanish economic growth is all but stagnant after the collapse of the crucial construction industry, unemployment is running at an EU-high of 11.3 percent and inflation is at nearly 5 percent.
The country is chock full of families smothered in debt, mainly because of sharply higher interest on adjustable-rate mortgages, which the vast majority of homeowners here have.
The number of companies and private citizens that are in arrears on payments is the highest in 10 years, according to the Bank of Spain.
Banks have all but turned off the credit spigot, and this week the government announced it is setting up a euro30 billion (US$41 billion) fund to buy what it called healthy assets from banks, providing them with liquidity to start lending again.
Normally banks take it upon themselves to deal with customers in arrears on mortgages. So El Cobrador del Frac offers its services to small- and medium-size companies, going after unpaid debts in exchange for a commission if the money is collected. It claims a 70 percent success rate.
Besides debt collection, the company will advise firms as to whether a prospective customer or business partner has ever had Cobrador del Frac on their trail.
The firm's logo — a man in tails and a top hat — is plastered all over its fleet of cars. It is this image that has been its main branding technique, rather than sending all its collectors out in full regalia, a tactic reserved for special cases.
"The idea was to create a logo that attracted attention. The tails, the top hat. This is the brand that sets us apart. It makes us very well-known," Granda said.
The company sends debtors a registered letter before dispatching a collector to knock on the door.
"If we cannot reach the person in arrears, we go visit them at home as many times as necessary to persuade them with our agents and the logo-bearing car that everyone can identify," Granda said.
The company lays claim to a distinguished lineage, noting that Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, once worked as a tax collector for the Spanish royal court.
"Our most illustrious ancestor," the company's Web site says of Don Quixote's creator.