By Sam Levin
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Others were fired.
Before it became part of Talley's empire in 1998, Rent-A-Center's workforce was 20.9 percent female. That same year, Talley's company, Renter's Choice, only had a female workforce of 1.8 percent. Two years after Talley bought Rent-A-Center and merged it with his company, the proportion of women in the combined workforce had fallen to 8.5 percent -- about half the women working for the company were gone. At the same time, one regional manager urged his store managers in a memo to "continue to hire gents." So as the pool of women workers shrank, the ranks of male employees grew.
It wasn't any better at the top levels of the company. According to a 1999 company directory, all seven vice presidents were men, all 45 male regional directors were men, 261 men and seven women held the position of market manager and 30 men and just two women were service managers. In the October 2000 company newsletter, Rental Times, the cover featured a group photo of Rent-A-Center's regional directors -- all men. Inside, the headline read, "Meet the 'Suits' who try to motivate us."
The "suits" clearly motivated ex-employees such as Claudine Wilfong.
On March 15, 1999, Wilfong filed a complaint with the St. Louis office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the company "engaged in class-wide discrimination" in St. Louis and across the country. And she hired three private St. Louis lawyers to go after the company.
Sparked by Wilfong's complaint, the EEOC joined with the 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 saw it was time to pull a fast one. With another judge and some compliant lawyers and clueless plaintiffs, they reasoned, they just might be able to make the whole mess disappear.
The book on J. Ernest Talley is that he's tough as a cheap steak and knows how to make money. Talley grew up in northwest Arkansas; his high school was just a stone's throw from Harrison. It's the area that gave Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton his start and later attracted transplants such as Ku Klux Klanner Thom Robb.
After high school, Talley moved north to Wichita, Kan., enrolled at Wichita State University and took a part-time job with the Boeing Aircraft company. He abandoned college after opening an appliance store, Mr. T's. 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 Chuck Sims, who started the Remco chain; and Tom Devlin, who co-founded Rent-A-Center.
Devlin, who sold Rent-A-Center to Wichita-based Thorn Americas 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." But, he said, that doesn't mean "there isn't someone under him who didn't do that."
Talley's standards were high, and employees who fell short didn't stick around long. According to Progressive Rentals, Talley had a totem pole with pictures of his managers affixed to it. Managers with the best sales performance were at the top; those with the worst were at the bottom. When business was bad, the bottom three faces on the totem pole got the ax. In 1974, Talley decided to get out of the appliance business and began investing in apartment complexes, many in Texas. He sold his chain to Sims, one of his managers.
Talley jumped into Kansas politics, running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives in 1976 as a fiscally conservative Republican. The largely white middle-class district in Wichita elected him twice. He quit after two terms but was later drawn back into local politics because he "got frustrated, this time with my school district." Talley lived in Goddard, a small town just outside the Wichita city limits, when he ran for and won a seat on the school board in 1981. After one term, he left politics for good and moved to Texas, where most of his business interests already were.
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. He also teamed up with son Mike Talley to form Talley Leasing -- with stores in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Tampa. Talley's apartment properties and appliance businesses were complementary: Tenants could lease items from his appliance store.
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 such as Crown Leasing, Magic Rent-to-Own, Kelway Rent-to-Own, ColorTyme and Central Rents. By May 1998, Talley had amassed 700 stores throughout the United States, but his still wasn't the biggest rent-to-own chain.
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