Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
You might have missed it a few months ago, this amusing aside in the daily news: during the auction of a flash rural property in the old-money recesses of the northern ranges outside Melbourne, two beefy blokes turned up, nosing about the place as if inspecting the sheds and chattels to buy them. Next thing, a tow truck cruised through the front gate and backed up to a barn, where the two beefs waved directions for a clean reversal. They winched the vendor's treasured Bentley automobile onto the tray and off they went, while the auctioneer was still huckstering folks to pay $1.3 million for the enchanting bucolic setting.
No, not car thieves, but repo man Peter Morey and his associates at work. For weeks they'd been trying to get it into the Bentley man's skull that he was no longer the owner of the car. He had failed to make his loan repayments, and shiny road-bling does not come free. But would the fellow listen? No. He was, says Morey, being a prick - considered himself too good for the rules that apply to the rest of us. How dare he be approached for money at his home: such a vulgar intrusion! "Get off my property," he demanded. "I have no idea where the car is at the moment." Which is prick-talk for I've hidden the lovely thing, and I know that under the law you can't sniff around looking for it like you were the constabulary.
From then on, he locked his gates against Morey. Repo men aren't allowed to cut locks to gain entry. They have to fill up a thermos, pack a lunch, and sit and wait to get the ‘get', as they say in the trade. Sit and wait, for as long as it takes. Morey got lucky with the Bentley get. Soon after the gates were locked, an auction sign was nailed up out the front. It was then just a matter of being there on auction day and strolling in with the public.
Some gets can take months - a recent effort in Sydney, for example, which was classed "sensitive". A nightclub owner had accepted a Mercedes-Benz in lieu of payment for a personal debt owed to him. Morey assumed the debt was drug-related, given the nature of the deal. The vehicle had a large loan on it from a finance company, but the nightclub owner didn't know this. He was driving around in his grand new carriage thinking it was legitimately his, plain and simple. The finance company wanted the car back. "The Benz sat at this nightclub, and there were bouncers, so it was a bit hard to go in and grab it," says Morey. "And we were also told he carried." Meaning a gun. "We tracked that car for three months waiting for a chance, a safe moment to go in and take it. And take it we did. And nobody got hurt. Good get."
Morey is 49-years old, stands a towering 1.93 metres and weighs in at 120 kilograms, testament to his enthusiasm for bodybuilding. His speaking voice is a hard hush, like Brando in The Godfather. It comes out of a long handsome face whose mouth has a ginger ring of clipped beard around it. At 7 in the morning he eats breakfast in his favourite café, before heading around the corner to the gym for a workout on the punching bag. He employs 40 agents across Australia and has a thousand files on his books each month. Most of the country's major lenders, including the big banks, are his clients.
Repo work is very safe work, except when it isn't. A little size on your frame is a useful asset, even though repossessing isn't as wild as the old days, before the '90s, when it was niche employment for standover men. Now there's a swag of regulations about when, where and how a defaulter, whom some in the repo game refer to as the ‘head', can be confronted. It's more mind game than muscle.
Morey has a saying: "I'd rather kiss you than fight you." But it's not necessarily something a defaulter cares to listen to. He has been clobbered with lumps of wood, fended away shotguns from his face, had pregnant women take a swing at him on the back of a tow truck. "Women assault us as much as men. They know we won't fight back. So they scream and become aggressive and hysterical with tears. They can be a real nightmare."
During his morning porridge meal he likes to be joined by one or two senior staff members to analyse the good gets and the bad. Today his companion is Blair, his right-hand man: a human boulder in a fleecy coat, tucking into bacon and eggs and a side order of spinach. There was that time when eight of Morey's crew had to make a get on two unsavoury types whom Blair calls the Russians. Their English might have been incomprehensible, but you don't need much English to make death threats, to throw a punch, to wield a weapon before the police arrive to arrest you. You can glimpse police notes while you're being charged, memorise the address of the repo men recorded there, and promise later that their families will come to harm. Morey has had to move employees' families out of their homes until the aggro settled.
He once repossessed a 60-foot yacht by hoisting it out of dry dock with a prime mover. Then there was the job involving six planes with $400,000 owing on them. Morey was expected to repossess the craft at short notice but had no pilot's licence to fly them, and they were too big to tow away. He had to bluff about a plan to remove them from the airfield immediately, which made the head panic and hand over $80,000 cash as part-payment of the debt.
Morey has chased down credit-card fraudsters and argued with AFL stars so rich and arrogant that they don't pay their mobile phone bills, because they think their club takes care of that sort of thing. Yet most of the heads are "one-offs": people who forget to make a payment, or who start living beyond their means, until the shock of having a repo man call curbs their appetite for flamboyance. Some are simply experiencing "changed circumstances", as Morey puts it.
I first heard about Peter Morey in 1999, when Australians had embarked on a post-recession materialist binge. A colleague of mine too much in love with horseracing had missed payments on a nag he part-owned. ("A little oversight," he said, after Morey came knocking. "You know how it is, you have ‘buy, buy, buy' going over in your head.") By 2002 there were plenty of one-offs as interest rates dropped to 4.25%, prompting Australians to run up a non-housing debt of more than $50 billion. Interest rates have risen to 7.25% since then, and debt has kept pace. Not that the repo industry's workload ever changes. Whether there's a boom or a recession, repo workers can rely on that most basic and plentiful of all society's raw materials to keep them employed: human excess, vanity and greed.