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Published: Thursday, 10/6/2011

Firm's workers pay off debt with personal finance course


ST. LOUIS — In March, Wisper Technology's 22 workers owed $480,699 on car and student loans, credit cards, other consumer debt. That's not counting home mortgages.

Now, they owe $130,999 less, Nathan Stooke, the company's owner, said. He said that as he walked around the business, which operates out of a converted barn in Shiloh, Ill., he picked up snippets of conversations. "A couple of times I heard employees on the phone haggling with credit card companies. They'd say, ‘I can't make that payment,'?" Mr. Stooke recalled.

Workers would come to him to ask for paycheck advances. Others would seek a raise, telling him, "Just a little more would help."

Wisper offers high-speed wireless Internet service, mainly to rural areas that cable and DSL can't reach. Mr. Stooke started it in 2003, going $36,000 into debt to buy equipment. "I spread it across three credit cards," he said.

Between then and now, $10 million in revenue has passed through his hands. So he found himself wondering why he still has personal debt.

He decided everybody at Wisper — himself included — needed to learn how to better handle personal finances.

So he shelled out $8,000 from company coffers, hired a facilitator, and bought materials for a personal-finance class. For 2½ hours every Thursday night, he told them, they'd be in school. That's after working all day. The course lasted 14 weeks.

"I had to strong-arm some of my employees," he said. "Four or five didn't want to be in the class."

He added a carrot. If they finished the course — and raised company revenue $6,000 a month — they'd get a 10 percent raise.

Mr. Stooke required spouses to take the course too.

He found the course changing his habits. "The pool pump broke. So I asked, ‘Do we have anything in the emergency fund?' Before, I would just have gone out and bought it."

He figures his investment paid off. Money stress carries over into the workday. "If I can help them be better people," he said, "I'll get a better return for Wisper."

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