Spartanburg-based Advance America gave a few of its customers a surprise Monday that many NASCAR fans dream about.
When Chesnee resident Janice Walker stepped through the doors of Advance America’s store at 975 Beaumont Avenue in Spartanburg, NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series racer Danica Patrick greeted her with a cash gift.
Instead of having to pay the cost of admission to a race for the chance at such an encounter, Walker strode away from the encounter $600 richer.
“My husband [Al Walker] will be so disappointed he wasn’t here,” Walker said. “We watch her every Sunday. He always looks for her car… I am so happy and shocked.”
Patrick, a native of Beloit, Wisc., took time away from her preparations for the upcoming Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway to help Spartanburg-based Advance America kick off its 20th anniversary celebration.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver arrived at the short-term lender’s store at noon. Patrick was expected to arrive by helicopter at 9 a.m., but fog delayed her flight from Charlotte, N.C.
Walker and three other customers were treated to a few moments of conversation with Patrick and a stack of six $100 bills. They each posed briefly with the NASCAR star for photos.
“It was like a wedding this morning, where you get married and you have to give other people free things,” Patrick said while addressing a crowd of employees during a ceremony at Advance America’s corporate headquarters in downtown Spartanburg. “In all honesty, I feel like I’m usually put in this fortunate spot of giving people things when it wasn’t me who gave it to them. It was you… You’re the ones that worked hard; that has made Advance America be around for 20 years.”
Patrick’s appearance in Spartanburg also launched Advance America’s 20th Anniversary Sweepstakes. During the promotion, the company said it will give away $1,000 to customers per day for 20 days and give away a grand prize of $20,000.
The grand prize drawing will be held on Oct. 3. Customers can enter the contest online at www.fastcashsweeps.com.
Advance America announced its two-year marketing partnership with Patrick in February.
Under the partnership, Patrick will display Advance America’s logo on her helmet during the 2017 season, and the company can use the NASCAR star’s name and likeness in advertising, promotions, social media, and other content.
“All of my interactions with everyone at Advance America has been first class,” Patrick said. “Everything from the campaigns to the shoots to the events… I think that is the perfect example as to why [the company has] been around for so long.”
Earnest Colston, of Cowpens, was one of the customers who got to meet Patrick and received a stack of cash.
“This is my rent,” Colston said.
Tracey Byrnside, of Spartanburg, said she didn’t immediately recognize Patrick. But tears streamed down her face as she accepted her gift, and stated that it would help her efforts to buy a house in Spartanburg’s Beaumont Mills neighborhood.
“Advance America is wonderful,” Crocket said. “They save my life at times. When you are waiting on your paycheck and have a place like this that can help you pay bills and buy groceries without having to pay credit card fines, it’s amazing. They always explain everything to me very clearly. I always feel like they’re there to help.”
Spartanburg businessmen George Dean Johnson Jr. and Billy Webster founded Advance America in July 1997.
The company started out at the Bell Hill office park off East Main Street on the city’s east side.
“We could sit the whole company around a conference table and still have a few chairs to spare,” said Jamie Fulmer, senior vice president of public affairs for Advance America, who was hired as employee No. 5. “We’re extremely proud of our history, how we’ve grown and evolved. We’re also excited about what the future holds.”
Fulmer said the company hired its first employees in August and September 1997. In November of that year, it opened its first six center.
By the end of the year, the company had opened 40 centers. During the next few years it continued its rapid rollout, opening hundreds of centers across the country.
In 2001, the company decided to locate its corporate headquarters in a new 50,000-square-foot building at the corner of North Church and Dunbar Streets in downtown.
Three years later, Advance America launched its initial public offering.
By 2012, the company’s portfolio had grown to 2,600 centers in 29 states, the United Kingdom, and Canada, along with about 5,000 employees.
That year, Mexico-based Grupo Elektra purchased Advance America for $780 million. The acquisition privatized the company, but Grupo Elektra decided to keep the company’s corporate office in Spartanburg.
Today, the company has 2,100 centers and about 6,000 employees in the U.S. It has 110 centers and 600 employees in South Carolina.
Fulmer said about 400 Advance America associates report for work in downtown Spartanburg each day.
A sign above the elevators at the company’s headquarters displays the bedrock principals that provided a foundation for growth: “Respect your customers, respect your associates, respect yourself, respect the law.”
During Advance America’s lifespan, the payday loan industry has come under fire for predatory lending practices by certain companies.
Regulations have challenged or eliminated Advance America’s ability to do business in certain states.
Fulmer said the company has always remained committed to following the law and taking care of its customers.
It is a member of the Community Financial Services Association of America (CFSA), which works to promote laws and regulations that balance strong consumer protections while preserving access to short-term credit for millions of Americans.
According to the CFSA, payday loan stores fill the need for small-dollar, short-term credit in communities throughout the country.
The association’s website said industry analysts estimate that 20,600 payday advance locations across the U.S. extend about $38.5 billion in short-term credit to millions of working Americans in 19 million households who experience cash-flow shortfalls.
CFSA said the payday loan industry provides jobs for about 50,000 Americans, and generates 2 billion in wages and more than $2.6 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.
“This is a significant milestone,” Fulmer said. “It demonstrates there is and always has been high consumer demand for the short-term credit products we offer… In an ever-changing regulatory environment, we’ve been successful by adapting to those changes and coming up with innovative products that meet the needs of our customers… As a company, we have remained wedded to our bedrock principals.”
During Tuesday’s celebration ceremony, Trudy Boyles, senior vice president of customer experience at Advance America, introduced eight employees who have been with the company since its inception.
In addition to Fulmer, those employees include Candy Blanchard, Loy Jeffords, Wayne Hall, Melissa Dougherty, Page Petit, Jeannie Pistilli, and Ladson Belcher.
“The first 20 years made us who we are,” said James Ovenden, president of Advance America. “We are very excited about the future.”