An Interview with Brenda Cline Kereakes
An Interview with Brenda Cline Kereakes

Brenda Cline Kereakes crisscrossed the nation for more than 10 years before landing in her native Chicago, where she serves as vice president of PayLink Payment Plans LLC, a provider of zero percent financing for vehicle service contracts and other related products. P&A caught up with Kereakes to discuss her work in the automotive and housing industries, new technology, compliance concerns and travel tips for frequent fliers.

P&A: Where are you from and what brought you to Chicago?

Kereakes: I was actually born in Chicago. My family moved to Southern Indiana when I was young, so I went to high school, college and then started my career in Indiana. In 1999, I started moving around the country. I spent a year in Iowa selling real estate franchises, then went to work for The Warranty Group in Colorado in 2001. In 2002, The Warranty Group asked me to move to Dallas and I spent seven years there. Then, finally, they moved me back to Chicago.

P&A: Was it difficult to constantly start over in new cities?

Kereakes: There are plusses and minuses. When I lived in Iowa, I was responsible for Chicago and Iowa, so I traveled back and forth. When I went to work for The Warranty Group in Colorado, I was responsible for five states so I was on the road every week. The move to Dallas required even more travel, as I was responsible for covering everything west of the Mississippi.

After The Warranty Group moved me back to Chicago, I was responsible for the entire country. The result is that I have friends all over. Sometimes I think that, if I ever wanted a new job, I could decide where I wanted to live next and make a call. But I like it here. My family lives six hours away by car or one hour by air, and Chicago has always been home to me.

P&A: So you’re a frequent flier as well. Any travel tips?

Kereakes: My frequent flying has really gone downhill. I have to say that’s not a bad thing. But it’s amazing how quickly your status goes away. They used to put me in first class on a regular basis!

As for tips, I used to load my bag with work for the plane. Then I met someone who said you really should just take some of your plane time and make it “you” time. Do something relaxing. Use it as an opportunity to check out. That was good advice.

P&A: What led you away from real estate and into automotive?

Kereakes: Before I went into real estate, I worked for a car dealership in Evansville, Ind. I had bought a few cars from them and met the dealer. I graduated with a business degree in education but there were no teaching jobs available at the time. So I called the dealer and he offered me a job as assistant to the comptroller.

I worked in a tiny room, put deals in the computer and found any excuse I could to ask questions of the sales force. I was their “wingperson” to help get the sale. That’s when I figured out sales might be my calling. The dealer wanted me to work in the F&I office. This dealership was tightknit. The F&I people had been there for 10, 15 or 20 years, and I think some of them are still there. I didn’t see an opportunity there.

P&A: Why not join the sales team?

Kereakes: I probably could have done that, but I was also interested in real estate. At the dealership, on Saturdays, they would bring breakfast, lunch and dinner in for the guys. I thought, gosh, I don’t want to do this. So I sold real estate and wound up working every Saturday and Sunday. But that’s where I learned about service contracts, what they call “home warranties.”

P&A: What does a home warranty cover?

Kereakes: Mechanical failures. Consumers often confuse it with homeowners insurance. Homeowners insurance is for fires, tornadoes, flooding and lightning strikes. A one-year home warranty, in most cases, is included with the purchase of the home and covers most mechanical systems — heating, A/C, electric, plumbing and most appliances. There might also be limited roof coverage, pool coverage and even hot tubs, depending on the state.

P&A: So you went from selling real estate to the home warranties segment?

Kereakes: Yes. In 2001, when I decided to move to Colorado, I called the person who served as the representative for our home warranties provider. “Do you do business in Colorado, and do you need anyone?” That place was Aon Warranty Services, which became The Warranty Group. When I started, I visited real estate offices and offered training classes on the features and benefits of offering a home warranty when listing and selling homes. But I was still a car chick. I always wanted to know what was happening on the automotive side.

P&A: And in 2012, you joined PayLink.

Kereakes: A recruiter found me on LinkedIn and reached out. I said, “No, I’m here, I’m happy, I’m good.” But she was a good salesperson. She encouraged me to sit down with PayLink. It took a few months, but they eventually convinced me to make the move.

They wanted to hire someone to focus on the dealer business. That business was growing, and they wanted to add an experienced business development professional who could be on the front lines talking to clients — someone to say “Thank you” or “No thank you.” So that’s what I did. Luckily for me, I had a lot of contacts from my long tenure at The Warranty Group, so I was able to open a lot of doors.

P&A: What are you working on now?

Kereakes: Zero percent financing for vehicle service contracts and related F&I products sold outside of the auto loan. I work with administrators, agents, dealers and their F&I offices, particularly those who have challenges growing the business or maintaining the business. We offer our payment plan as a tool for dealerships to sell vehicle service contracts and other similar products, so long as the product makes sense to finance — whether it is, for example, insured and cancelable.

P&A: What is your target market?

Kereakes: Consumers that wish to purchase a service contract outside of the auto loan or in the service drive. If a consumer is maxed out on their credit or they brought their own check from their credit union or bank, the F&I manager can use our zero interest payment plan to offer them a service contract or a tire-and-wheel product, a prepaid maintenance plan, dent-and-ding coverage. When a client uses our payment plan, there are no credit checks or any underwriting of any kind for the consumer.

P&A: Isn’t it difficult to sell any products to maxed-out customers and those who have already secured financing?

Kereakes: It’s precisely that type of consumer that appreciates the value of a zero interest payment plan. Assuming money is tight and they cannot afford to pay for repairs to their car, they need a service contract to keep their car on the road. And the opportunity to pay for the service contract over time without having to pay interest makes the purchase more affordable for the consumer. From the perspective of the F&I person, the ability to offer our zero interest payment plan is valuable sales tool.

Several years ago, I flew from Chicago to New Jersey to buy an Audi from a BMW dealer. I had a check from Chase Bank in my hand. I walked into the F&I office and while they did offer me all the products, they did not offer me a zero interest payment plan. I was a perfect candidate for zero percent financing but my only option was paying for it on a credit card with interest.

I think there are a lot of opportunities to offer services like ours, but the dealer and the F&I folks have to know we’re out there. We pride ourselves on taking care of our customers — dealers, agents, agencies and end users — and our business is continuing to grow. We continue to sign up OEMs, new administrators and new dealers, and we’ve seen material growth from our legacy clients.

I have been to the industry meetings and spent time at the NADA convention, Agent Summit and Industry Summit. What I’ve found is that people are very receptive to working with PayLink and zero interest financing. In the last couple of years, we have really focused on integration with all the new technology being introduced to the industry. It’s critical from our perspective that dealerships can efficiently transition to and use our zero interest payment plans. It certainly helps that I worked for an administrator and that I had some experience at a car dealership.

P&A: We recently reached out to several product providers to ask whether parts of the F&I process can or should be digitized. The providers seemed to be in favor but I can tell you that at least one of my F&I manager friends read the article and didn’t think too much of the idea.

Kereakes: I’m a true believer in the products and in the process. If you’re talking about putting more information about F&I products online, to me, that sounds like providing consumers more information. There certainly is value in that. But when it comes to terms and conditions and trying to figure out what is covered and what isn’t covered, that can be very scary for the consumer. I think a live demonstration from a sales professional can help them better understand the product and better see the value. And it gives you an opportunity to do some objection-handling.

I’ll use myself as an example again. The last time I flew, I realized I had forgotten my headphones. I went into the Brookstone at the airport to buy a $15 pair of earphones and they offered me a service contract. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known it was an option.

P&A: A number of the compliance experts we work with believe that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is going to make a serious effort to regulate the pricing of F&I products.

Kereakes: It’s such a hot topic right now. Our focus is disclosure, disclosure, disclosure. At our company, the pressure comes from our general counsel and it’s always on the agenda. We have a compliance department that works to peel back every layer of the onion to make sure everything’s done correctly. If you run your business as legitimately as you can, you’ll be in a better position if you ever receive a call from the CFPB.