(NECN: Peter Howe, Warwick, R.I.) - Say "repo man" and you probably think of rough-necked operatives who grab old cars from struggling people who've fallen months behind on their car loans.
That's basically what Ken Cage and Brian Dykes of International Recovery Group do. Only in much nicer neighborhoods. And what they specialize in repossessing is $200,000 yachts and $1 million private planes -- and other high-end properties including, once, a champion race horse. The company is based in Orlando, Fla., and does work all in almost every state and increasingly foreign countries as well.
In the cult classic "Repo Man," a 1984 Edge City/Universal movie, Harry Dean Stanton's character advises the rookie repo man played by Emilio Estevez: "An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.''
On the day NECN gets to catch up with IRG at work, Cage has come to Bristol, R.I. "What brings us here is a 30-foot yacht worth about $200,000. Try to repo it today, and start heading it home,'' Cage explains. The boat is owned by a couple who are in the process of getting a divorce, and they've fallen four months behind on their boat loan, triggering proceedings by the bank to foreclose and seize the boat as collateral.
All Cage starts out with is information from the bank that's hired him that the boat is probably somewhere in Rhode Island. But after looking around a Bristol marina near the couple's homes, they haven't found anything. But they get a tip from someone in Bristol: Try heading across the bay to a marina in Warwick where the couple's been known to moor the boat sometimes.
They climb back into the white minivan with Vermont plates they rented at T.F. Green Airport and head through Providence and down to Warwick and check out the suggested marina.
No luck there. But before they leave the second marina, they're one big step closer to finding their quarry. It turns out a staffer at the marina knew exactly which boat they were looking for and knew where it was, down the coast a few miles.
"We not only have the marina where it is, we know the dock, and we know the slip. So as long as the person didn't move it this morning, we know exactly where it is,'' Cage says as they prepare to head down to their third Rhode Island marina of the morning.
How did he find out? He just asked a marina employee -- discreetly. "You never lie to people, because they'll never forget that. What I said is, 'Somebody sent us here for the boat.' Well that's true. That's absolutely true.'' He just didn't go out of his way to volunteer that it was the bank that wants the boat repossessed for non-payment on the boat loan.
(Repo men, as you can imagine, like to move fast, travel light, and not attract a lot of attention, so for this story a lot of the video for this story you'll see on NECN's website was shot on what we call, tongue in cheek, our special NECN UndercoverCam ... A widescreen-format JVC digital handheld video camera rather than a professional broadcast TV camera.)
At the next marina, also in Warwick, Cage and Dykes explain why they've come, show their paperwork, and head -- quickly and confidently -- down to the slip to get on board and seize control of the boat. Cage also calls the Warwick Police to let them know they are licensed, professional repossession agents, not burglars.
When they finally found the boat, it had no name on the back. That's part of the hide-and-seek game struggling debtors often play with a bank to buy time before their vessel is finally repossessed. But what a boat does have is a hull number, just like the VIN vehicle identification number on a car. Checking that number is what tells you you've got the right boat.
Brian Dykes quickly picks the lock to get inside the cabin, and after spending some time trying to pick the ignition as well, looks around and finds a set of spare keys inside. After completing an inventory of the debtors' personal possessions on board -- all the bank can seize is the boat, not the contents -- they prepare to have it secured at the marina while the bank that now owns it prepares to remarket it and recoup its losses on the loan.
Elapsed time to track down and grab this boat from the time Ken and Brian landed in Rhode Island: A little over four hours. And IRG has now earned several thousand dollars in recovery fees for getting the yacht back.
But it's no time for luxury repo men to rest on their laurels. The day's only half-over. Having flown up to New England, they still have to head up to Newburyport, Mass., to seize another $200,000-plus 31-foot yacht. (Cage has had days he and colleagues repossessed as many as seven jets before day's end.)
En route, Ken and Brian work their cellphones and learn the vessel isn't in the marina where it's normally based.
On a hunch, they go by the owner's home a couple of villages away to see what they can find out.
Bingo. The boat is there -- but parked on blocks in the yard behind the delinquent borrower's house. No trailer in sight anywhere. That means a whole new headache: Finding a boat hauler available at 4 p.m. And then haggling their way onto the debtor's lawn to tow it off.
No luck on that front, it turns out. But Brian and Ken line up a boat hauler for the first thing the next morning.
Something that helps enormously to smooth the process of persuading the delinquent borrower to let them back in a trailer and haul the boat off the lawn: a smart repo man white lie.
Anticipating that the operation will bring out curious neighbors up and down the street, Ken -- who asked NECN not to give any identifying information about the name or location of the repossessee -- said, "What we're going to tell everybody is: We bought the boat. There's no reason for us to tell anything else. We're looking out for them. Believe it or not, we are compassionate. We're trying to look out for these debtors a little bit. Nobody needs to know what's going on with these folks.'' Having had an unexpectedly smooth and civil conversation with the owners after informing them he was hear to repo the boat, Cage said, "They're not bad people. They're good people. Just, something bad happened to good people."
For Ken Cage, these 24 hours counted as a good day in repo. Recalling other operations that went far less easily, he recalled, "We've been chased down a runway by a 70-year-old man and his caddy. Chased with shovels. Hit by former NFL football players.'' Once one of his colleagues got bumped by a car on a runway as they tried to get into the driver's private-jet cockpit to seize it.
"There's a lot of neat stuff that happens out there, but generally, we're able to keep cool,'' Cage said.
I asked Cage if he ever feels guilty about taking people's possessions -- even if they are months overdue repaying their bank.
"These are toys. These don't affect peoples lives,'' Cage said. "If I take their boat away, they're disappointed, but they can still get to work, still get the kids to school. We're not going to get involved in cars because it's just not for us.''
Cage said he's also confident that repossession professionals are one piece of making the whole system of credit and lending work.
"The banks are the core part of this. They lend the money to put the airplanes on the field and the boats in the water. Without them, there's a ton of businesses that won't work. They won't lend without us. Because we're here, the banks can go and lend, and they can make that money they need to make, because we're here to offset some of that risk. We're a small part of this whole puzzle that makes the system work.''
And, he doesn't mind a tense situation. "It's a lot more interesting than an office job. I did that long enough,'' said Cage, who used to work in the auto-finance business before becoming a high-end repo man. "It's a whole lot better than driving in to work and sitting in that cubicle all day, I'll tell you that.''
Tomorrow, he'll be on the hunt for another yacht, or a jet -- or a million-dollar who knows what.
With videographer Mike Bellwin