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If the tight-knit staff members at Meridian-based Capital Auto Loan seem like they're going out of their way to be courteous, not just to customers but everyone they deal with, keep in mind that benevolence is more or less built into the company's business model.

The company's founders kept hearing from the local auto industry that bad actors were taking advantage of customers by dangling incentives that ended up adding a year or more to their loans. To observers it looked like people with poor credit were being treated like cattle.

In stepped Capital Auto Loan seven years ago with its very first agreement with an auto dealer. It pursued two goals as a subprime lender: Help customers build their credit, and promote a positive experience along the way.

Since that first day in 2014 in Meridian, customers leave the dealership with invaluable advice. They get a list of six tips for a successful loan:

* Communicate: If something goes wrong that may affect your ability to pay on time, call

* Update: If you move or change phone numbers, or have to miss a payment, call

* Be honest: Give it to us straight

* Stay insured: If you don't, we do it for you and it'll cost more in the long run

* Refinance: Building your credit gets you a better rate elsewhere and we don't charge pre-payment penalties

* Think: Pay on time and give a little extra when you can to save money on interest

It's good advice — maybe not from a strictly business perspective, but good for customers, anyway.

From the beginning the company's founders wanted to treat customers the way banks would treat their most valued, and valuable, accountholders, co-founder Travis Hawkes said by email.

The company has always strived to create a "win/win/win structure for the customer, for the dealer, and for our team," he wrote.

"Part of our culture is about treating people with kindness, honesty and transparency," he went on, "and that is not only internal but external to our customers, vendors and dealers."

Hawkes reckons the company is the only one in its field offering a no-exception, guaranteed refinancing program.

"We want to be a short-term solution for people, not have life-long customers," he wrote. "That is different from the mindset of most businesses but when a customer can refinance at a lower rate through a credit union we celebrate that!"

Does it also help the work environment at Capital Auto Loan that the company employs people from many different backgrounds? Hawkes says it does.

He apologized for the cliche but went ahead and compared the company's office life to family.

A big strength he sees is that the company employs people who come to the job from different backgrounds.

Experts in the field work alongside new hires just out of high school. Empty-nesters drink from the same pot of coffee as parents with toddlers. Idaho natives have lunch with co-workers new to the state.

"The various backgrounds and experiences help us to empathize with each other and our customers," he wrote.

The family keeps growing.

Capital Auto Loan has gone from 15 employees to 40 in the last two years. It's expanded from its base in the Meridian and Idaho Falls markets into Utah and Montana. By next spring there's a good chance the payroll will be at 50 employees, Hawkes predicted.

If all goes well, who knows? Arizona, eventually, and Wyoming look good to Hawkes and his partners.

"Exciting times ahead!" he wrote.

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