ROSEVILLE -- Tiff Worley was president of a medical laser distribution company when a member of his board of directors got into financial trouble.
The situation was Worley's introduction to the chaos, stress and loss of self-esteem faced by many people with credit and debt problems as they try to get control of their finances.
Intrigued, Worley posed as a prospective client, visiting several consumer credit counseling agencies. He concluded that people seeking help generally were treated with indifference in an overly expensive, cookie-cutter process without regard for individual circumstances or needs.
''I felt as though I were applying for food stamps,'' Worley said of his visit to one agency.
The cost also was a deterrent. Most credit consolidators were charging fees based on a percentage of the debt and were requiring clients to pay monthly with a cashier's check or money order.
''To do this every month for 42 to 52 months is a big imposition for people,'' Worley said.
There had to be a better way for people to get back on their feet, Worley felt. And he wanted to be part of it.
In 1991, he left his job as president of Felas Lasers to open Metropolitan Financial Management, a nonprofit agency that helps debtors sort through their options and find the best solutions for managing their debt.
The Roseville-based company now does business as Auriton Solutions from 15 offices in 10 states -- Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada and Ohio.
Auriton had 1999 revenues of about $6 million and projects revenues of $8.5 million this year.
Clients pay a $25 initiation fee. If the company believes it can help, a counselor is assigned to work with the client -- at no additional charge.
''We're one of a few in the field who don't charge anything for counseling,'' Worley said.
Auriton covers about 75 percent of its expenses with fees paid by creditors, about 15 percent with client fees and the remaining 10 percent with funds from other sources, including grants and foundations, Worley said.
''People come to us always overextended and frequently past-due in payments,'' Worley said. ''There's such a high degree of denial in accumulating debt. Folks who find themselves in a financial crisis are usually not good at sorting out the alternatives.''
One alternative offered by Auriton is a debt repayment program administered by the agency. Worley said 18 percent of the clients choose this route, paying Auriton, which then pays the creditors.
Auriton negotiates with creditors on terms and conditions of repayment, typically getting creditors to lower payments and interest rates.
''Lower payments don't make sense if the interest rates being charged are high,'' said Worley, whose counselors try to educate their clients on good financial policies as they work out a budget plan.
Clients pay a small processing fee, comparable to what they would spend on postage and handling if they continued to pay their bills directly to creditors.
Some clients make their own payments once a detailed budget management plan is worked out. Others need only budget help. Sometimes clients are referred for chemical dependency, gambling problems or marital problems.
For those who are in way over their heads, Auriton offers referrals to reputable bankruptcy attorneys.
''People who we talk to are really doing their best to avoid bankruptcy,'' Worley said.
That was the case with Jay Liebenguth, one of the company's success stories. Liebenguth, of Omaha, Neb., was deep in debt with his small video production business when he met one of Worley's employees while working on a job.
Liebenguth admitted he needed help, saying he had accumulated ''tens of thousands of dollars'' in debts while trying to finance his business through credit cards.
''I was using credit to pay off credit. It's something that's with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's not only a financial drain, it's an emotional drain,'' he said.
''These guys just put a plan together and faxed it back. Within 24 hours after having talked to him I felt 100 times better, like a great weight had been lifted from me,'' Liebenguth said.
''They were able to reduce my interest rates and the amount of money I was paying every month, yet I was paying it off faster,'' he said. ''I'm down to one credit card now that I pay off every month.''
Auriton has served about 35,000 clients since it was founded and has about 16,000 active clients.
''We've got clients on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and we've got people making a quarter million dollars a year,'' Worley said. ''There's no income range that is free from debt problems.''
Worley said 65 percent of the company's clients pay off all of their creditors or get to a point where they can take over payment of the debt on their own.
''We consider it a successful resolution when somebody can assume payments they can realistically make with the knowledge that the payments can get them out of debt in three to four years,'' Worley said.
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