Nasty Boys

The women screwed by Rent-A-Center are threatening to take the company to the cleaners. But Ernie Talley and the rest of his Texas bubbas are trying to have the last laugh.

That was about to change.

Like a snake swallowing prey twice its size, Talley made a bid to buy Wichita-based Rent-A-Center's 1,400 stores from Thorn America for $900 million. On Aug. 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 that Arnette allegedly 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 to repeatedly complain about Arnette's behavior, nothing was done, she claimed. Many of the women in the corporate office felt trapped. To get their severance packages, they were required to remain for the whole transition period.

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. Workers with personnel issues, including harassment and discrimination complaints, were told to take it to their managers, then their managers' managers. As a last resort, workers could turn to Marty Roustio, who held the title "manager of co-worker relations."

By the end of 1998, the Wichita headquarters had been closed and everything had been 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 pulled down $74,000 in salary and commissions, was one of the women Rent-A-Center's spokesman suggested that the Riverfront Times contact 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. And as far as watching topless women gyrate around a metal pole or perform lap dances on middle-aged men, Shell didn't mind. 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."

Even John Madden -- that is, John Madden's likeness -- became part of the sophomoric hijinks. Madden, the former football coach and Fox Sports personality, joined Rent-A-Center as a spokesman in February 2000. His image is plastered on store windows, hangs from store ceiling and appears on life-size posters on showroom floors throughout the chain.

At one store in Bridgeport, Mich., a recently hired male worker cut the crotch out of a stand-alone Madden display and inserted a hotdog. One of the men working in the store bent over a desk and, with the Madden poster propped up nearby, posed for a photo of simulated anal sex. Another photo shows the man crouched on the floor, mimicking oral sex with the poster.

Gwen Davis, an account manager at the store, found the scene offensive. But when she complained to her store manager, he laughed and invited a manager from another store over to look at the pictures. Davis called Roustio, manager of co-worker relations, and initially he didn't even believe the incident occurred. When she faxed him two of the photos, he called her back a few days later and said the men had claimed she took the illicit photos, insinuating she had been part of the whole prank.

"You are gonna believe an employee who has been here less than 30 days over me?" Davis asked Roustio incredulously.

He did.

The men weren't disciplined. For Davis, the incident was one of many she'd already endured at Rent-A-Center. She quit, but with no money coming in, she was forced to rely on food stamps for her family and borrow money from relatives.


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," Wilfong, the Arnold store manager says. "Just because I'm a female, it didn't matter."

On Jan. 1, 1999, Wilfong quit. For a few months, she says, she lay around in her pajamas, feeling "pretty depressed, pretty sad." She'd invested more than a decade in the company, building up a successful store. Now, she says, "it just seemed like it was all for nothing."

But then she started talking to other women, some who'd 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." Wilfong decided she owed it to her daughter to stand up to the company.

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