Where the Boys Are

Page 3 of 5

Sparked by Wilfong's complaint, the EEOC joined with Wilfong's lawyers in a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in East St. Louis. As the case developed, they amassed evidence from more than 270 women and 30 men in 47 states that painted a picture of a company intent on purging women from its ranks.

Faced with a mountain of evidence and a demand for damages exceeding $400 million, the good ol' boys traveled to Kansas City, where another judge, some compliant lawyers and clueless plaintiffs might just make the whole mess disappear.

J. Ernest Talley entered the rent-to-own business after opening an appliance store, Mr. T's, in Kansas in the early '60s. According to a 1991 profile in Progressive Rentals, a trade magazine, Talley noticed that banks were becoming less willing to make small loans for appliance purchases. To bridge the credit gap, Talley began experimenting with the rent-to-own concept. By 1974, he had 14 stores scattered throughout the South and Midwest. He hired men who subsequently developed into industry leaders--men such as Tom Devlin, who co-founded Rent-A-Center.

Devlin, who sold Rent-A-Center to Wichita, Kansas-based Thorn America in 1988, describes Talley as "creative and into making money." But he doesn't recall Talley discriminating against women. "Ernie believed red, white, black, green, if they could make you money, you would hire them." In 1974, Talley decided to get out of the appliance business and began investing in apartment complexes, many in Texas. He sold his chain and jumped into state and school-district politics in Kansas before moving to Texas sometime after 1985.

In 1989, Talley re-entered the rent-to-own business by becoming a partner in Vista Rent-to-Own, which had stores in New Jersey and Puerto Rico.

In 1993, Talley formed Renter's Choice and merged Vista into the new company. Then began a series of mergers and acquisitions as Talley gobbled up smaller chains. By May 1998, Talley had amassed 700 stores throughout the United States, and that year made a bid to buy Wichita-based Rent-A-Center's 1,400 stores from Thorn America for $900 million. On August 5, 1998, the deal was consummated.

Corporate-culture clashes happen whenever businesses merge, but for the women working in the Wichita headquarters during the acquisition, the attitudes of the new regime were shocking, especially when Dowell Arnette--Talley's right-hand man--came to visit.

When Angela Turner, an administrative assistant, wore a skirt to the office, Turner claimed in a sworn statement, Arnette said, "So, how far do your legs go up?" When administrative specialist Toni Spurgeon-Coker wore red, she alleged in a sworn statement, Arnette "sized me up from head to toe as if I were in a bar. He said to me, 'Ooooh, you look good in red.'" But when Spurgeon-Coker went to the legal department repeatedly to complain about Arnette's behavior, nothing was done, she claimed.

The new regime also jettisoned Thorn's human-resources department. Jim Weinrich alleges that Dowell Arnette described the HR department as full of "namby-pamby, willy-nilly women." Renter's Choice didn't have an HR department and wasn't interested in adding one to manage the company, which now had 11,300 employees.

By the end of 1998, the Wichita headquarters was closed and everything was consolidated in Plano. One Thorn tradition the new management kept was an annual Las Vegas convention for the company's top brass, middle management and store managers. But under Talley's leadership, the convention turned into a fraternity party, complete with scantily clad female cheerleaders available for photos with employees and group outings to strip clubs.

Although some of the women who attended the convention found it offensive, St. Louis store manager Tammy Shell says it was fun. Shell, who last year earned $74,000 in salary and commissions, was one of the women Rent-A-Center's spokesman suggested as a source for this story. Shell says she didn't have a problem with the cheerleaders' booth; in fact, she agreed to have her picture taken with them. She says she had a good time at the strip clubs because the Rent-A-Center guys were "playing like they were Rams players and the strippers were all over them."

Other former female employees say, however, that just five months after the acquisition by Talley, Rent-A-Center had become a downright hostile place for women.

"No matter how hard I worked or tried, or what I did in the past, none of it mattered," says Wilfong, the Arnold store manager. "Just because I'm a female, it didn't matter."

On January 1, 1999, Wilfong quit. For a few months, she says, she lay around in her pajamas, feeling "pretty depressed, pretty sad." But then she started talking to other women, some who had left Rent-A-Center and others who were trying to "stick it out, and it wasn't going good for them." Wilfong realized, "It wasn't just me that felt betrayed, everybody did."

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Geri L. Dreiling