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East Aurora firm awarded ESDC grant Debt collection agency is adding 140 jobs

A debt collection agency specializing in student loans is getting a $280,000 capital grant from the state to offset the cost of a $2.3 million expansion in East Aurora that will add 140 jobs.

Empire State Development Corp. announced the grant Tuesday for Windham Professionals, a Salem, N.H.-based national debt collector that first opened for business locally in January. The collections firm currently employs about 60 people at its second-floor offices at 300 Gleed Ave. in East Aurora, where it handles past-due government-guaranteed student loans and some private loans. The planned expansion and grant will retain those jobs and triple the size of the operation.

"New York state is dedicated to seeing its businesses not only grow, but also thrive, and we look forward to ensuring Windham reaches its goals for success," New York Gov. David A. Paterson said in a press release.

Specifically, plans call for the firm to purchase and install new equipment, computers, furniture and machinery, while adding a training room and reception area, and training both its current and future staff. The firm plans to make the office its primary call center for the U.S. Department of Education.

The firm currently leases its space, but there are no plans for adding to that, since its existing office can accommodate as many as 210, said the company's human resources director, Lisa Bostwick.

"We believe the space we have will be sufficient. It's just reworking that space to meet our needs," she said.

The addition of the 140 jobs is the latest in a series of gains for Western New York, following announcements by Internet search engine Yahoo! and auto insurer GEICO Corp. that they will bring or add at least 425 positions locally.

"An additional 140 jobs for Western New York is a huge win," Empire State Development Chairman and CEO-designate Dennis M. Mullen said in the press release. "It is ESD's priority that businesses have the best opportunities to compete in New York state, as well as ensuring there are solid jobs available for our local workforce."

Bostwick cited Western New York's reputation as "the second-largest collections capital" in the country as a key factor in the company's decision. The region is home to many collections operations with thousands of employees, including a subsidiary of Sallie Mae.

"Western New York is known for its talented people in this industry," she said. "There's a lot of talent to pull from, also a great work ethic, and lots of people looking for jobs."

The expansion by Windham comes as the debt collection industry in New York is under investigation by state Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo over its aggressive practices, which can sometimes violate state or federal laws that prohibit harassment and threatening tactics.

Like many collections firms, Windham is the subject of numerous complaints online. But Bostwick said the company maintains both on-site and corporate compliance departments, and conducts internal and external audits, to ensure that its staff follows applicable state and federal laws.

Founded in 1982 by collections industry veteran Edward M. Sheehan Jr., Windham is a licensed national full-service debt collection agency specializing in educational, commercial, government and healthcare industries. Besides the East Aurora office, the company has collections operations in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Nevada and Tennessee, as well as sales offices, and employs about 520.

Its roots are in educational collections for colleges, universities and guaranty agencies, but it expanded through a pair of acquisitions in 1995 and 2005. It now collects on loans in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, as well as internationally.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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