Last updated: Sun. Aug. 03, 2014 - 12:29 am EDT
Marjorie Stephens isn't the same sunny woman she was 11 years ago.
That's when she went to work for the Better Business Bureau Serving Northern Indiana and was suddenly surrounded by stories of frauds, scams and swindles.
“I feel a little more skeptical when things happen because I know so many people have been taken,” she said. “And it's just the tip of the iceberg because so many people are too embarrassed to come in.”
Stephens was recently appointed the nonprofit organization's president and CEO, replacing Greg Smitley, who left the position to become treasurer and vice president of finance for Huntington University, his alma mater.
Since joining the nonprofit, Stephens has lost a measure of innocence. But she hasn't lost empathy – especially for victims with limited mental abilities.
“That's a very sad situation,” she said. “It's a horrible situation.”
Stephens' goal for her tenure is to increase the organization's visibility in its 23-county coverage area. If she succeeds, bureau staff might hear fewer sad stories because residents will have internalized some of the 63-year-old's healthy skepticism.
It could prove to be an uphill battle. The bureau faces growing competition from numerous online companies, including Twitter and Yelp, that offer customers easy access via smartphone to rave about good businesses and rage against bad ones.
Mark Reeder is betting on Stephens.
The market development and field marketing director for Franklin Electric Co. Inc. worked with Stephens for about six years and has been friends with her for about 20.
“She's one of these people who doesn't know how to do anything halfway. If she's going to be part of the organization, she's all in,” Reeder said. “She makes other people around her better.”
Mike Coil, who once led the local bureau for about 12 years, was on the selection committee for the new president and CEO. Although she was an insider, Stephens had to follow the same process as other candidates. About 35 résumés were received, and five candidates were interviewed.
“The thing that Marjorie brings that I think is unique is her unbridled enthusiasm,” Coil said.
Stephens' target audience is the millennial generation, which might not realize what the bureau can do for it – despite the organization's presence on Facebook and Twitter.
Stephens told the story of a young woman enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington. When the student's landlord tried to charge tenants for new window screens, she threatened to report the fee to the Better Business Bureau. The landlord dropped the charge to avoid having his rating lowered, Stephens said.
The bureau's local office welcomes complaints from consumers. Staff will work as a go-between for the consumer and the business, trying to reach a resolution everyone can live with. If mediation fails, disputes can go to an outside arbitrator, whose decision stands up in court.
The agency has tracked fewer complaints in recent years, however. The decrease directly correlates with an increase in consumers contacting the bureau to check out a company before striking a business deal, Stephens said.
Most of the bureau's revenue comes from member dues and from fees paid by businesses that want their names to come up first when consumers search the bureau's website for a certain category of company – a practice known as search engine optimization.
Even so, the organization retains its independence, issuing failing ratings for businesses that don't resolve customer complaints.
Accreditation is by invitation, which is issued only to businesses that demonstrate integrity, transparency and honesty in all dealings, including advertising. Annual dues, which begin at $495, vary based on the number of employees.
The bureau's local board of directors offers the nonprofit's CEO a wealth of business expertise, Coil said. Stephens, the first woman to hold the title, can go to the board at any time for advice – just as Coil did.
“I always said the best part of my job was that I got to meet some great people,” he said.
Coil includes Stephens, his former director of marketplace services and operations, on that list.
Stephens, a southeast Ohio native, moved to Fort Wayne in 1971 with her husband. Jerry Stephens is a project manager for Bowmar LLC, a supplier to the aerospace and defense industries.
Jill Starbuck, a friend and former co-worker, said Stephens is a professional who makes those around her feel comfortable.
“I know that in corporate America, some of the heart is missing, and Marjorie brings heart and compassion to the job,” Starbuck said.
“She wants to do the right thing and will do anything to get there.”