When Bernie Dancel divorced at age 23, he considered his options. He had only completed one year of college at the University of Delaware and had spent some time in the military in the hopes that he could pay for his remaining schooling while supporting a young family. With the burdens and bills from his marriage and separation adding considerable girth to the already pressing expenses of daily living, he quickly found himself amidst mounting debt and dwindling hope. When he sought the advice of an attorney, he was told that filing for bankruptcy was his only option. Though his financial liability slate was wiped clean, filing for bankruptcy left personal and emotional afflictions that persisted, casting a troublesome shadow upon his sense of self-worth.
The professional path that he pursued in the wake of these trying times is a testament to a conviction Bernie had felt in his soul all along—that people are inherently good, knowing the difference between right and wrong and generally striving to do what’s right. With his feet back on the ground, he began a career in financial services, achieving lucrative positions as he learned how to assess investments and manage excess cash flow. The more he learned, however, the more he yearned to transition into a role that would help people who were struggling financially instead of those with excess. He dreamed of helping people who were more like the figures of his childhood—people who were trying to persevere amidst imperfect circumstances. The youngest of two boys raised by a single mother who worked odd jobs for restaurants, farms, and canneries, his passion for struggling demographics rested close to home. Thus, he leapt headfirst into the credit counseling business in 1992.
At that time, the credit counseling industry was stiflingly homogenized. All the organizations were nonprofit entities funded in large part by creditors, which created a conflict of interest that left much to be desired. The services were only revealed to consumers sporadically and usually not until a creditor had attempted debt collection and failed. Furthermore, Bernie felt as though the industry’s leadership consistently missed the big picture because they had never been consumers of the services themselves, oblivious of the kind of financial stress they sought to assuage. After several months of industry exposure, Bernie couldn’t take it anymore. But, rather than jumping ship and pursuing a less frustrating career path, he took a decidedly different approach: transforming the industry altogether.
Funded through his new wife’s line of credit, he opened a shop with just himself and a phone. In the next five years, the one-man show evolved into Genus Credit Management and quickly became the largest nonprofit credit counseling agency in the country, earning over $100 million in revenue and instigating industry-wide change. The company owes its success in large part to its consumer-centric approach—a revolutionary shift from the previous model that was managed, controlled, and governed by the credit-granting community. Contrary to traditional protocol, they advertised and marketed their services readily. These advertisements used very specific and direct messages so people knew if they were qualified to call and had the option to seek help regardless of the depth of trouble they were in. Striving to eliminate common barriers, Bernie instituted a call center so people didn’t have to take time off work and weren’t forced to suffer the social stigma of walking into a credit counseling office. If a consumer was up at 2 AM worrying about how they might make ends meet, Genus Credit Management would be there to answer their call.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of this story is the fact that Bernie and his team were never acutely aware of their success, even as it mounted. As he reports, “We didn’t know we were the largest at the time because we just had our blinders on. How do we help more people? How, how, how?” The company was continually streamlining their processes, improving their training, and exploring different channels of communication to spread the word. While delivering real and concrete help to consumers used to take six to eight weeks, Genus Credit had whittled the process down to forty-five minutes. Leveraging technology and building strong, informed relationships with creditors allowed Bernie to act as a responsible, compassionate, and positive mediator between creditor and consumer.
With Genus Credit Management growing as fast as the rest of the industry combined, Bernie took it upon himself to get out in the field and talk face-to-face with top creditors, banks, and collections departments. He hoped to acquire a more nuanced understanding of the players in his business so that he might better serve both them and their debtors. After this venture he resolved to transition away from Genus Credit, leaving it as a nonprofit in the hands of the management team he had put in place, and to launch Amerix Corporation in 1997. Through this new endeavor he aimed to advise credit counseling agencies, teaching them a new business model and providing the technology they would need for implementation. By assimilating these core competencies into the industry, he was able to reach more consumers and instigate even more widespread change than before.
And yet, it was not enough for Bernie and his corporation to affect change in the industry alone. When he next set his sights on establishing a for-profit credit counseling agency, he found that many states had difficult barriers in place for that kind of business. Instead of throwing in the towel, he set about changing legislation state-by-state, building an environment in which he could operate objectively and without conflicts of interest. Thus, CareOne Services Inc. was established and affiliated with Amerix under the Ascend One Corporation family. 3Ci, a business designed to market the CareOne brand, was also formed under Ascend One. Today, CareOne offers credit counseling while also partnering with other professionals to provide access to resources on bankruptcy and debt settlement. It maintains a unique flexibility, able to thoroughly examine the consumer’s needs to make recommendations that are truly in the best interest of a person in need. Instead of taking the traditional one-size-fits-all approach, they run individual analyses on their customers. In this sense, it is truly more than the sum of the services it provides, taking a holistic approach and providing the consumer with options. Their results are truly a testament to this approach, with a significant percentage of clients able to pay back the entire sum of their debt.
One other riveting aspect of Bernie’s business model is his utilization of the consumers themselves as resources. Because credit counseling and debt management relies so heavily upon behavioral modification throughout the plan’s implementation, advice and support is especially critical. Consequently, Bernie’s company facilitates communities of consumers who can come together and share tips and stories. “We turn to our customers as the experts because they’ve been doing this,” Bernie explains. “They come up with solutions because they’re forced to or else they won’t be able to make it through the month.” Not only does this provide a valuable support structure for the consumer, but it eliminates the traditional expert vs. debtor dichotomy that was so prevalent in the industry before Bernie’s influence. Whereas credit counselors would oftentimes talk down to consumers in the past and do further damage to their self-concept, the consumer is now positioned as a respected and valuable perspective in the credit counseling process.
This unbridled willingness to collaborate is a key ingredient to Bernie’s success as an entrepreneur, allowing him to assemble answers from many diverse sources into coherent and comprehensive solutions. “I don’t need to have all the answers myself,” he says. “I know there are answers out there and I’ll look anywhere it takes to find them.” Relying on the input of his executive team, his management style hinges upon collaboration and, above all, upon trust. “They trust each other completely,” he says of his team members. “Whatever it is they’re doing, it’s for the greater good of the organization. This allows them to have important disputes and great discussions.”
The passion at work behind Ascend One’s leadership is undeniable, providing a firm foundation for the organization as it continues to revolutionize and redefine the credit counseling industry. It is staggering to think that the passion fueling their continued growth and success today is the very same passion that was present at the humble kitchen table all those years ago where Bernie first began his crusade. It continues to fuel his conviction in the face of certain discouragement, giving him the persistence to keep asking questions until every answer is found.
Recalling many occasions where he was told his goals were impossible, he advises future generations with the kind of optimism one can have faith in. “Believe you can do anything you want to do,” he urges. “Mistakes are lessons. Successes are even more lessons. Failure doesn’t bother me. I believe in where I’m trying to go so much that it’s real.” His greatest piece of advice to young entrepreneurs is to find this same passion within themselves—that wellspring of energy and excitement that brings happiness and contentment regardless of how profitable it is. Transform it into a career and use it to carry you through failures and setbacks, which there surely will be. “There’s nothing that’s impossible,” he reminds us, living proof of the empowering words he speaks.