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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 13, 2006

Repo men on a roll

By Rick Daysog
Advertiser Staff Writer

Aloha Auto Auction in Mapunapuna, which auctions repossessed cars to auto dealers, has taken in more vehicles especially big ones since gas prices started rising.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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As he cruises the back streets of 'Ewa Beach in his tow truck, Clint Araki keeps an eye out for a Chevrolet Tahoe.

Dressed in black jeans, a black cut-off T-shirt and steel-tipped boots, the 45-year-old Araki stops at the car owner's last known address then zips down several streets where he thinks the owner could have stashed the sport utility vehicle.

"Stay in the truck because this one might get ugly," Araki tells a reporter riding along on a recent Tuesday morning. Araki eventually locates the SUV the following day in the two-car garage in an 'Ewa Beach cul-de-sac.

Araki is a repo man. He repossesses cars, trucks, boats and other durable goods from consumers who are delinquent on their payments.

And these days, the repo business is pretty good.

No one keeps an exact tally of the number of car repossessions in Hawai'i, and some, like the state's largest car lender, First Hawaiian Bank, are seeing no change in the number of car repossessions.

But repo men and the state's only car auction house say they're seeing a definite increase, despite the growing economy.

"Believe it or not, we're taking plenty of BMWs and Mercedes," said Araki, who has been a repo man for 27 years.

"Right after Christmas it picked up and right after tax season I expect it to pick up again."

Greg Lelesch, special projects manager at Aloha Auto Auction in Mapunapuna, said he began to see an increase in repossessions last year as fuel prices began to take off after Hurricane Katrina.

Lelesch, whose company auctions repossessed cars to auto dealers, said the trend was especially noticeable in repos of SUVs and other large cars.

With gasoline prices rising more than 50 percent to $2.88 a gallon during the past two years, big-car owners have seen their monthly gasoline bill increase by as much as $60 a month.

"When gas prices went through the roof, people made a choice: They parked a lot of their bigger cars and stopped paying for them," Lelesch said.

David McCollough, president of the state's largest car repossession service, RT's Service LLC, has a more simple explanation: There are more new cars on the road.

Boosted by low interest rates, attractive incentives and robust job growth, sales of new cars and trucks have risen from about 55,000 in 2000 to about 70,000 last year. During that period, banks and car makers began offering cut-rate incentives, allowing borderline buyers to qualify for their loans.

"Everyone wanted to move their product so they were willing to take more risk," McCollough said.

Araki believes that many of his targets are just living beyond their means.

He noted that he recently repossessed two BMW sports cars from a Hawai'i Kai resident, who had just bought a home for $700,000.

The owner was able to keep a third car only after working out a deal with his lender, Araki said.

For Araki and McCollough, the higher volume is translating into big business.

Repo men are paid per car at rates ranging from $350 to $450, although some like Araki do their work on a subcontracting basis and get less than $200 per car.

Araki, whose company, The Tow Boyz, also provides towing services, said his company does about 12 to 15 repos a week, which generates about $1,500 in weekly revenues.

Araki and others in the business concede that the money may be attractive but warned that the job is not for everyone.

Araki said his day often starts as early as 5 a.m. because he likes to catch the car owners before they leave for work.

On a recent morning, Araki drove to a home in Hawai'i Kai to repossess a pickup truck. No one appeared to be home that morning and the truck wasn't parked on any of the nearby streets.

Next he headed to Kailua in search of a BMW SUV but found out that the owner lives in a gated community, which is off-limits for repo men.

He later checked the owner's workplace near the airport to no avail.

Araki said he has never seen "Repo Man," the 1984 black comedy starring Emilio Estevez. But like the movie, Araki's 27 years in the business doesn't lack drama.

According to Araki, a repo man has to deal with irate car owners and often times there are collateral issues such as a divorce or substance-abuse problems that make his job more difficult.

He has been called obscenities of all sorts and has received a number of threats.

Araki said he has also looked down the loaded barrel of a gun several times.

Once, while repossessing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the owner charged out of his home, waving a 9 mm pistol.

Araki's partner at the time, an ex-police officer, talked the man into going back into his home, while Araki struggled to push the motorcycle into his truck.

There have been other close calls.

Araki said he recently repossessed a truck in Kalihi when a large man came out of a housing project with a cricket bat.

The man's pickup was hooked to Araki's tow truck and Araki said he had no exit plan.

"That was scary. I finally told him I was doing a repossession and he said 'Oh, can I take my stuff out,' " Araki recalled.

"It's a spooky job sometimes but I've done this job so long I'm numb to it," Araki said. "It's just business and you have to treat everything like it's business."

Araki said he tries to talk to angry car owners to calm them down. And if they get too unruly, he calls the police.

"Some think all they (repo men) need to do is have muscles and look intimidating. That's the wrong message to give out," added RT's McCollough, who is also a licensed private investigator.

"You want to become this person's friend. You have to have a good head on your shoulders and if you're a hot-headed person you're going get into trouble."

Aloha Auction's Lelesch also believes in the low-key approach.

"Anonymity is our friend," Lelesch said.

"If you walk into a situation and they recognize you, it's bad. You don't want to be like that guy Dog Chapman."

Reach Rick Daysog at rdaysog@honoluluadvertiser.com.