Jim Varagona

Tag: Dirk Kettlewell

Merry Christmas To Most

As the year winds down and we are in the midst of the holidays, I count my blessings. My son made it through a scary Craniosynostosis surgery without any complications. We spent our first year in our first home without any huge issues. I may have lost my job, but we have survived, no thanks to those that put us and countless others in this hairy position.

I wonder if InkStop CEO, Dirk Kettlewell and his wife Dawn, who was a VP in the company, sleep well at night knowing of all the lives they affected by yanking employment from people and the money owed for their last 3 weeks worked as well as various vacation and expenses. This was not a sign of the times. This was not a product of the economy. Do not give me your bullshit lines of how the poor economy has hit many hard and blame the government for this group of unemployed, like I see so many times as I read through comments on articles about what happened at InkStop.

As a store manager in one of their stores, I saw otherwise that points to pure ignorance in terms of running a business and/or a great scheme for a handful of folks to make their money not caring what vendors, landlords, or employees they rip off along the way. A little over a year ago, managers were gathered to preview the upcoming holiday season. We saw merchandise that never came around and some that did, but a couple of weeks before Christmas. We were told that the company would turn a profit and we could expect great things. From there, we had ads in Sunday papers that showed products that we had small quantities of or none of at all. We were given orders to presell items on the first day they were advertised. i myself have never been to a retail establishment that offered to presell anything beyond upcoming video game releases, but we did this week after week. Hell, we needed some profit, and sometimes most of it was from items that did not exist in our stores yet. We had anticipated dates that would fluctuate. We would not only presell, but if you didn’t want to pay ahead, we’d still put you on a list and call you if we ever got what you wanted in. Most phone calls I would receive around this time were having to with when the product would be coming in that someone paid for or was put on a list for. Our binder of people that had prepaid or were waiting for product was pretty lengthy. This is not how retail usually operates folks.

When it came to Black Friday, I asked for assurances from people above me that we would have sufficient quantities, since we had previously had issues with that, especially items on the front page of our ad. I asked if we should hold items back for that day. I received mixed messages on that so we held back what we could and of course were still left in a bind. We had pink Kodak cameras advertised that we originally were told we would get no more of in for our Black Friday ad, which is crazy, but we ended up getting a couple last minute. It was still quite frightening explaining we had one less than advertised to the line of people that had braved the cold weather at 4:30 in the morning outside of an ink store. They should’ve known better.

Okay, so mistakes are made, but in my time in retail, I had never seen anything like this, and I’m sure the majority of consumers can say they haven’t either. Some have said, that’s the pain of being a startup. Well at that point, we were 3 Christmases in with this company. A company with “a management team that’s done it before” (a quote directly from Mr. Kettlewell) should know not to advertise product that they can’t meet demand on and to be opening the majority of its new locations during the month of November, which eats up funds and existing inventory when both of those are already in short supply.

As time went by, we entered the new year with all print advertising suspended and any shipments virtually non-existent. Obviously something was wrong, yet money was spent on canvassing brochures and coupons that we were to treat like gold. Instead that money could have been spent on keeping ink on our shelves, since we were, say it with me now, INK-Stop. We turned more and more customers away each day giving new excuses as we went along, because we were in the dark as much as they were. Sure, vendors would not give us product. You cannot receive what you do not pay for.

By spring, many vendors were suing InkStop already for non-payment and before summer began, landlords got on board. We were told not paying landlords would help them renegotiate leases. If I were the landlord, I would sue the piss out of them and go on my way, since they obviously were not good for anything. Traffic at my location was down to under 5 paying customers most days, since we were turning many away that we did not have ink for. They began advertising on the radio here, which seemed odd considering you are inviting people into a store that already is an embarrassment and instead of getting your act together and filling shelves with needed product, you waste money on another venue to bring people into our store and get ticked off. I only hope this management team that has done this before doesn’t get the chance to do this again. If they do, I can only blame the company that decides to hire them, not the economy or whatever else is convenient.

Just in case you don't see one sign, there are many...and a guy wearing one waving more signs.

Now my former store is finishing liquidating product as part of the bankruptcy of InkStop. Hopefully some money comes from that. I am owed over $3000 in wages and vacation pay. I imagine most of the 400+ that were screwed over in this mess are missing out on $2-3K that they rightfully earned. I wonder if the Kettlewell’s are having a Christmas at all. I’m sure they are, but it’s a shame if you figure all of the Christmases they’ve affected. I’m sure others on the board of InkStop, which include Dale Fuller, John Bulgarella, Mark Race, B. Charles Ames, Norbert “Nobby” Lewandowski, Richard Ames, Michael A. Clegg, James J. Hummer, James Mastrian, Michael Shaughnessy, Norman “Boomer” Esiason, William Heinzerling, and Harvey Sanders will have a wonderful holiday with their families. Even if they didn’t make most consequential decisions in this company, their hands were in the pot. If they paid more attention, this could have ended sooner with a warning so that folks could leave on a brighter note with all of their money. Good thing that towards the end (from “InkStop Started With a Bang and Ended With a Bust” by Janet Cho in the Cleveland Plain Dealer 12/21/09):

…even as revenue streams from investors were dwindling, the company issued nearly $5.3 million worth of checks and wire transfers to its directors and senior managers, according to court documents. Directors were repaid for their previously issued notes: $1.7 million to Richard Ames; $1.2 million to James Hummer’s Luxemburg Capital; $369,000 to B. Charles Ames; $350,000 to James Mastrian; and $109,268 to Norman “Boomer” Esiason.

Company executives were reimbursed for their expenses, including $143,495 to Dirk Kettlewell and $80,328 to Mark Race, vice president of real estate; and $10,451 to Dawn Kettlewell.

Doesn’t it give you that warm feeling? If you figure an average of $3K for each of the 456 employees that lost jobs when it all went sour, that would only make $1.37 million. I’m sure these multi-millionaires could afford to toss some money our way, but we’ll have to fight tooth and nail for whatever we can get instead in the courts. It’s a shame how these things work. All of these big wigs can go put their money into something else without paying much attention to it.

More signs. Hopefully something good comes from this ugliness.

Yes, I’m ranting here, and that isn’t what the holidays are about, but I only wish some couldn’t have any enjoyment out of this at all and others could have a much better holiday with all of their bills caught up on and being able to give their children and grandchildren everything they want for Christmas.

I have realized through all of this that the gifting does not matter. The fact that we all have friends and family and are thankful for each and every moment we can spend with them, even through those dramatic times, is great and is what this is all about. No matter if there is deep religious meaning to this holiday or not for you, it is about being with our personal support groups and eating a crapload of food. Enjoy that. And Merry Christmas to all most, and to most a good night (may the other crooks have horrible gut wrenching nightmares of their money evaporating).

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The Letter

Yesterday I received a call from the lawyer representing our class action group against InkStop (see How It Went Down at InkStop). Someone from the Fox affiliate here in St. Louis wanted to talk to somebody in town about our story. I told him I’d be willing to do it, especially since I had been in 2 other pieces for NBC and CBS here.

Sean Conroy of KTVI gave me a call and we agreed to meet in front of my old store. Both he and his cameraman were very nice and expressed their sympathy for our situation. Conroy explained that he was eating lunch next door at the San Sai restaurant and noticed the sign that I put on our door, which was in essence, a letter to our customers apologizing for the lack of notice that we were shutting down. I can only imagine how many customers missed out on returning the substandard private label ink we sold. Anyway, I put the sign up a couple of weeks ago. The wording was mainly written by the manager of one of the Pennsylvania stores, with a few tweaks.

It reads:

To our Loyal Customers…

The Employees of InkStop would like to apologize for the misdeeds of our Corporate Management.

On October 1st, after store hours, and one day before our own payday, the Corporate Board announced through an email to us that they were closing all store effective immediately, and that they would not be paying their employees for a total of the last 3 weeks worked. They also informed us in this email that they had not paid the medical coverage for employees since August 2009, even though this money had been withdrawn from our paychecks.

Since then, most contacts with the corporate offices have since been terminated, including the 877 Information Number and all online services for both customers and employees.

Again, we the employees would like to apologize for any inconvenience this has created. For more information, or to keep up with our lawsuit against the owners of this company, please Google “InkStop.” There’s plenty out there.

The letter to the customers of InkStop in Maplewood, MO. The door also is decorated with two eviction notices for non-payment of rent.

The letter to the customers of InkStop in Maplewood, MO. The door also is decorated with two eviction notices for non-payment of rent.

The reporter was impressed by the grassroots effort to hold the corporate goons responsible and not walk away from this. Even though our case is pretty good, these people are dastardly and will do whatever they can to avoid paying everybody they owe money to. By staying in the eye of the media, we are letting folks know who the people are that are responsible and what they did to affect so many. Dirk Kettlewell, that means you.

I thought the piece turned out pretty good. I look a bit rough, but this was on short notice, and at least I got my point across.

Here’s the link: InkStop Stores Close With Little Notice (KTVI)

How It Went Down at InkStop

I saw this coming. I am unemployed now, and I saw it coming. The signs were all there. I tried to tell others. My comments and information were scoffed at. Surely the company would find their way through this they would say. A higher up told me to stop talking shit. I have learned from this situation to trust my gut, because I was right all along. And it was probably worse than what I assumed.

The night of Thursday, October 1st, 2009, was cold and rainy. I had just finished working a full 12 hour shift at the InkStop store I managed. On my way home, a co-worker from another location called me. He had heard from his co-worker who heard from her boyfriend that worked at another location from his boss that we were not to show up for work the next day because we were all out of jobs and we were not going to be paid. I told him that nothing that the company did surprised me anymore. We had listened to lie after lie about product shipments that never came, about eviction notices that simply meant the company was tactfully renegotiating leases, and that overall everything would be okay.

My boss, who had only been on the job for several weeks, was ringing in. I told the guy I was talking to that I would let him know what was going on, and then I clicked over.

“Well I guess you’ve heard the news,” he said.

Let’s back up here. We were told repeatedly not to gossip or listen to rumor during these mysterious times. Boss man himself told us exactly a week prior that no stores were going to close, that the company would give advance notice if anything like that would happen, that product would be coming soon for our big 4th quarter, and that our many investors would take care of us. I couldn’t blame him for believing what this company ran by con-artists had told him. Why would they hire someone and open a few new stores in other parts of the country in that past month only to shut it all down? Nothing really ever made much sense, but I wasn’t about to believe the lies he was passing to us from headquarters, and I’m sure he had his suspicions as well. He was going into stores where employees told him that they haven’t seen any substantial shipments for the past nine months, where they told him about receiving visits from sheriff’s deputies for non-payment of rent and visits from utility providers saying we had 24 hours to pay up to continue service. Unless you drank some pretty tasty Kool-Aid or were sporting some nice rose-colored specs, you would be concerned with the hand you had just been dealt.

A day after boss man told us about the great things that would happen, he was told he had to go close a store 4 hours away. So much for advance notice. I scrambled to find out more if I could. Some employees in other markets were tweeting about stores closing in their markets. Jobvent.com, which had been a haven for folks concerned about the way the company was being run, had a few posts discussing store closures in more markets. I used sources I had along with this information to calculate that in several days, 10-15% of the company was suddenly being closed down. From what we knew, the district and regional managers were as blindsided by this as we were.

I could only expect a store closer to me would close. Sure, it makes sense to close lowest performing stores, but you also have to figure that many of these stores had received judgments against them in the courts and had run the course of appeals and dragging ass as much as they could to “renegotiate leases.” It makes sense in an economy as uncertain as it is during this time with a company that was struggling to try to lower rent, but is not paying the best way to accomplish this? Maybe to get to the bargaining table, but once your ass is taken to court, you would think the relationship with your landlord would be soured. After poring over court dockets, it seems that InkStop may have been able to settle some of these cases, but after paying up something, they went right back to not paying. Again, you’d assume that would tick a landlord off even more. For the store we ended up closing, that was the case as they had recently lost an unlawful detainer case, which spelled the end of the line. I tried to be as optimistic as possible when I told my findings to that store’s manager after they received a default judgment against them weeks before. Would they close? I am no legal expert, but since I had been looking into the long list of lawsuits against the company I worked for, losing an unlawful detainer case means you’re gone. I said maybe they could drag it out, but 45 days seemed like the maximum amount of time they’d be able to drag out. My optimism was giving it 45 days.

So the day before it all shut down, a group of us had to gut this store that received the judgment. 1500 square feet filled with product, which we loaded into a rented trailer and unloaded into another store. We then had to dismantle all of the fixtures, load them up, and then empty those into a storage facility. It was the most work I had done in one day for this company. We had opened stores in the past for them, but never worked with such a deadline and so much physical work crammed in to meet it–all for naught.

And now back to our program.

“Well sir, I’ve only heard rumors, so why don’t you clear that up for me?,” I replied to my boss.

He went on to explain the conference call he was on an hour before our conversation. The CEO, Dirk Kettlewell, explained that they needed more funding to keep InkStop going, but temporarily all 150 some odd stores were shutting down, effective immediately. I knew that meant for good. We all knew that any hint of optimism was all part of the long trail of lies. Boss man added that we weren’t going to get paid the next day. How convenient! Take your workers to the absolute last day before they find out they will not get paid, therefore getting an extra week out of them on top of that. It sounded genius, in an evil kind of way. We were (and still are) fucked.

I could tell that my superior was just as surprised by all of this. We could only blame those at the top for not being able to pay our bills the next day and having to juggle our remaining funds for the foreseeable future somehow. I frantically, mid-conversation popped a u-turn in traffic, in the rain, to get back my coffee maker and other personal effects like a magnet with my son’s photo on it or the personalized mug I got for my first Father’s Day with a picture of us on it. As I drove back, I called my one associate multiple times. Of course this would be the time she doesn’t pick up her phone. I left several screaming voice mails, getting progressively louder like it would summon her to pick up her cell phone. And I called my wife telling her what we feared would happen, but weren’t entirely surprised by.

I zipped to the back of the store to grab my personal items and sped off in my car back home.

Finally my associate called me back. I told her the news and she cried and screamed in disbelief. We had talked about this happening though. It’s that damn how and when that sneak up on you. We had even had specific “What will we do when we’re unemployed?,” half-joking conversations. The time had come.

We couldn’t have stopped this. It was almost destined to happen with the long line of mistakes that we saw being made. Some were lucky to get away before it went down. I had looked for other work, but given the sad state of our economy, I came up empty. As things got worse, I grew my beard out and said I would stick with the company to see how it all would end, thinking we had several more months. I didn’t really figure it would rob me and countless others from substantial amounts of money that we worked for or that it would happen so abruptly.

Update 10/27/09

Here are some links of press coverage. I went on a media blitz in St. Louis getting the following coverage.

KSDK: Ex-InkStop employees say they are laid off and unpaid

KMOV: InkStop employees left out of work, unpaid

St. Louis Post Dispatch/STLToday.com: InkStop runs dry leaving ex-employees unpaid and unhappy

Special thanks to Casey Nolen of KSDK, Chris Nagus of KMOV, and Steve Giegerich of the Post Dispatch for those pieces.

Also Janet Cho of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has done an excellent job of keeping up with this story with the several pieces she has written. Here is a link to the tagged InkStop content that she has done.

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