Equifax, one of the nation’s top three credit-reporting agencies, along with Experian and TransUnion, holds information on more than 400 million credit holders across the country. With 4,600 employees in 13 countries worldwide, and $1.4 billion in annual revenue, the Atlanta-based Standard and Poor’s 500 firm is one of Georgia’s most profitable companies. Its 2005 market value of nearly $5 billion makes it one of the largest publicly traded companies in the state.
In 1899 Cator and Guy Woolford, two brothers from Woolford, Maryland, began operations as the Retail Credit Company in Atlanta. They started their credit investigations by going door-to-door among merchants, asking about their customers and noting the findings in ledgers. Cator, a former bank employee, and Guy, a lawyer, employed simple notations to reflect merchants’ comments about their shoppers’ payment habits: “Prompt,” “Slow,” or “Requires Cash.” They published these findings as “The Merchant’s Guide,” sold it for $25, and offered individual credit reports. The business soon became very successful.
Their downtown office quickly expanded, as the brothers offered life and auto insurance. The Retail Credit Company continued to expand, going public in 1965 and (with other credit agencies) coming under Federal Trade Commission oversight in 1971. Not long after, the government accused the company of rating employees based on how much negative information they could find about consumers. The company responded that such findings were never used in credit-rating evaluations but were limited to its insurance and consumer investigations businesses (which were later spun off). Nevertheless, after the company pledged to monitor its procedures more carefully, the government halted its investigation.
In 1973, in one sign of its giant growth, Retail Credit Company again faced off against the Federal Trade Commission, this time for monopolistic practices. Again, charges were dropped—by that time (1982), national computer databases made information that was once available only regionally accessible nationwide. The company’s name was changed to Equifax in 1976, perhaps, some thought, to counter the lingering memory of the company’s brushes with government regulators.
Over the years the company has produced several profitable data-gathering and transaction-processing progeny, including Certegy, which became a separate entity in 2001, and ChoicePoint, which became a separate entity in 1997. The trouble-plagued ChoicePoint made headlines in 2005 for leaking consumers’ confidential information to identity thieves. (ChoicePoint and Equifax did not then, nor do they now, share information or any relationship.)
Today, in addition to its credit-reporting and risk-management businesses, Equifax markets credit cards and provides fraud-detection services, database marketing, and risk consulting. Equifax’s credit-scoring software is offered through many subsidiaries, and its customers include retailers, insurance firms, health-care providers, utilities, government agencies, banks, and other financial institutions. Its stock value consistently outperforms the market, and the company often explores new ventures, although with varying degrees of success.
The Woolford brothers left their own legacies apart from the phenomenally successful business they started. In the late 1920s Cator Woolford befriended Franklin D. Roosevelt when the future president began visiting Warm Springs, seeking a cure for his polio. Woolford was sympathetic to Roosevelt’s illness, and he became one of the founders of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation (later, Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation). Woolford also spearheaded fund-raising efforts for the construction of Georgia Hall, one of several buildings Roosevelt erected in Warm Springs. Many years later, after Woolford’s death in 1944, his former Druid Hills estate became the site of the Frazer Center, a rehabilitation facility for children and adults with disabilities, and the Cator Woolford Gardens, designed by landscape architect Edward Daugherty.
In 1935 Cator Woolford donated a parcel of land he owned in Glynn County, adjacent to an old river plantation known as Elizafield, to the state of Georgia for use as a state park. A decade later, the state legislature consented to the establishment of a home for underprivileged boys, Boys Estate, on the property. Today the facility operates as Morningstar Treatment Services, which serves children with intellectual disabilities.
Guy Woolford was also inclined to make lasting contributions to his community. He established the Thomas Guy Woolford Charitable Trust, which is today administered by SunTrust Banks. Additionally, in the late 1940s he served as a trustee of the Fernbank Science Center and helped to acquire property that would ensure a buffer for the pristine Fernbank Forest in DeKalb County.