Columbia Ultimate seeks to grow local workforce

Post-acquisition, provider of accounts receivable management software will lean on innovative software

Columbia Ultimate Building

When Vancouver-based Columbia Ultimate Business Systems recently began looking for a buyer, the goal was to find a match that guaranteed that the company’s 120 employees would remain on the job here.

R. Fred Houston“We wanted a relationship that revolved around taking care of our associates,” said R. Fred Houston, Columbia Ultimate president and CEO. “We had several offers but chose Ontario Systems because they, like us, are starting a period of real growth and they agreed to keep our employees.”

Ontario Systems, headquartered in Muncie, Ind., announced the acquisition for an undisclosed sale price in June.

The two companies, both privately held, have much in common. Each offers services in the accounts receivable management arena using proprietary software to help clients stay on top of transactions.

Ontario Systems provides RCM (revenue cycle management) services and ARM (accounts receivable management) systems to five of the 15 largest healthcare systems in the U.S. The company manages more than $40 billion in receivables with its products.

Columbia Ultimate, operating at 4400 NE 77th Ave. near Vancouver Mall, provides similar software and integrated solutions to clients throughout the U.S., including more than 100 state and municipal government customers. Banks, healthcare businesses and law firms are on the roster as well as clients in Canada and Europe, Houston said.

About half the 120 people at Columbia Ultimate work as software engineers to support product development and installations. There also is a significant legal department to stay abreast of debt collection regulations, typically state by state. The rest are in sales and administration. According to Houston, average employment with the company is 10 years and up.

“Each client faces different and growing issues related to their industry, to federal and state regulations,” he said.

Houston joined Columbia Ultimate in 1984 and will remain “for a while” with Ontario Systems as vice president. He will continue to separately own Intelitech Group, which provides business analytics to the collections industry with offices in Camas.

While Houston is the president and CEO of Columbia Ultimate, he is not the company founder. The founder, who lives part-time in Vancouver and wishes to remain anonymous, started the company as Dataflow in Portland in 1979. When he moved the business to Vancouver, the name changed to Columbia Ultimate. As part of the sale agreement, he will continue to own the Vancouver corporate office building.

Houston described Columbia Ultimate as “a leader in transforming collections industry in the early 1980s with its innovative software.”

Ontario Systems has a similar profile with Ron Fauquher as CEO and co-founder. Ontario Systems was named “Best Place to Work in Indiana” by the state chamber of commerce in 2015 and 2016.

“We have always respected Columbia Ultimate as an organization that puts its people and customers first,” Fauquher said in announcing the acquisition.

“We are excited about the expanded growth opportunities that await us as a result of Columbia Ultimate’s leading position in state and municipal government markets.”

The acquisition includes Columbia Ultimate and a sister company, RevQ, as well as its patented software products Ajility, Revenue Results and The Collector System.

Houston said that the combined intellectual capacity of the two companies will give them collaborative efficiencies in software development that will support business growth.

He predicts 10 percent revenue increases and corresponding employment growth of 12 or more new jobs in Vancouver a year under the Ontario Systems umbrella.

“This business is people intensive. There is no formal place to learn about debt recovery,” he said. “It takes a while to learn about regulations and compliance issues. That is part of why our people are so valued.”

According to industry statistics, collection agencies in 2013 recovered $55.2 billion in total debt, on which they earned $10.4 billion in commissions and fees.

Despite more stringent regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and lawsuits resulting from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, market opportunities are increasing, analysts say.

Meanwhile, Max Ault with the CREDC said the Columbia Ultimate-Ontario Systems deal is not a surprise. In the past year, the development council has seen an increase in merger and acquisition activity in the region.

“Baby boomer entrepreneurs who have founded and operated successful businesses now are at a point when it may seem like a good time to take advantage of strong (investment) market,” he said.

Columbia Ultimate Business Systems
4400 N.E. 77th Ave, Suite 100 Vancouver Founded 1979

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