Universal Adcom president vows to improve company practices

The leader of an Arlington advertising company that has come under fire for its sales practices says he is working diligently to improve his company’s operations.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, Jim Gildenblatt, president of Universal AdCom, said a new system installed now records phone calls in which staffers verify all sales. That will help ensure they were properly done, he said.

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“If we find anybody saying anything unethical, then we terminate them,” said Jeff Wolpa, director of operations.

Gildenblatt said that recently he has fired at least two employees, including the second-ranked saleswoman, for unethical behavior.

“She couldn’t believe we were firing her, but she was just not being respectful toward customers,” he said. “She just expected everyone to buy from her. We received two complaints through customer service, and we started monitoring her without her knowing it.”

Marc Alcorn, the executive vice president, said, “We want to protect ourselves and our customers.”

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One example of the company's products

Universal AdCom sells ad space to businesses and prints the ads on maps, magnets, tote bags, T-shirts, cups and other items. Company officials say they give these items free of charge to schools, chambers of commerce, police departments, city halls, public libraries, recreation centers, fire departments and businesses across the United States for distribution.

But the company has been the subject of hundreds of complaints in recent years from officials with some of those entities. They say company sales personnel claim affiliation with them when none actually exists.

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Other complaints come from customers who say they have paid for ads but never saw the items on which they were supposed to be printed.

Gildenblatt said the complaints are caused by misunderstandings: “When we say we’re working with the band director at a school, some people hear that we are with the school. We’re not [employed] with the school. We’re working with them.”

He also said he handles complaints and works hard to ensure that customers are satisfied.

Wolpa acknowledged to Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation that, in the past, some overly aggressive sellers working for the company of 375 employees may have exaggerated their affiliations with respected entities in a community to gain credibility when selling to prospects.

“We call it misrepping,” he said, which stands for misrepresentation. “We don’t condone lying to customers.”

After I requested an interview, senior staffers met with The Watchdog for several hours in a company conference room with company lawyer Mark D. Hatten of Fort Worth. I requested the interview because, two days before, I had interviewed two former sales employees who described a pattern of unethical business practices. The Watchdog wrote about the company in October 2011, the same month both employees left their jobs.

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Interior shot of company headquarters in Arlington, TX. (Courtesy of company website.)

Nancy Royal worked for the company for four years before she said she was fired in October because she refused to sign a noncompete agreement. Gildenblatt told me that she wasn’t fired, that she had angrily resigned. The second former employee, Adrian Tella, worked for the company for seven years. She resigned, she said, because “of business practices that I didn’t feel were in the best interests of the customers.”

Both women said salespeople engaged in aggressive, even bullying business tactics to get customers to renew ad contracts. They said customers were often confused about what they had agreed to buy and what they owed.

Gildenblatt said every sale is supported with a signed contract. He insisted that the taping of sales verification calls will end such problems.

Taping procedures will soon spread to the company’s five other offices in Fort Worth; Molina, Ill.; St. Louis; Davenport, Iowa; and Peoria, Ill., the president said.

Tella said, “I feel bad for the customers being abused and not getting a resolution. As a small business, they can’t afford an attorney and just let things go.”

She said the company philosophy was “you have to do what you have to do” to make a sale.

Royal said that when customers complained to her about problems with their accounts, managers told her to let it go because “buyers are liars.”

Alcorn, the vice president, said that sometimes “buyers are liars, but that’s not our company philosophy. Will they try to get out of paying for an ad? Absolutely. They change their mind and say, ‘I don’t like the way it looks.’ It happens in businesses all the time.”

To satisfy angry customers, he said, the company reprints items, refunds money, sends out free products or writes off accounts.

The company president said his No. 1 priority is to use the new taping system as factual evidence to improve the company’s Better Business Bureau rating. The BBB gives Universal AdCom and its subsidiaries an F.

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Read a previous post about this company – Company’s Defense of Sales Tactics Doesn’t Square with Complaints.

If you have a problem with Universal Adcom or any of its affiliated companies, send an email to Watchdog Nation here.

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Company’s defense of sales tactics doesn’t square with complaints

Some chambers of commerce in Texas and across the nation have complained about an Arlington company that sells maps, advertising and other promotional items to chamber members. The problem, these chambers and their members say, is that salespeople for Universal AdCom and its affiliated companies claim they are working for the chambers when they aren’t.

Company officials, however, say they do not engage in deceptive sales practices.

“We try to run a clean ship and operate aboveboard and with integrity, but there are just some individuals that you’re always going to have a beef with,” says Hiram McBeth III, the company’s general counsel. “Believe it or not, when you deal with a high-volume business such as ours, there are some people who try to avoid their debt.”

The Watchdog found that in the past decade, chambers, as well as other government agencies, schools and newspapers, have issued warnings to steer clear of the company in Washington, Vermont, Texas, Oregon, Mississippi, California, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kansas, West Virginia and South Carolina.

Attorneys general in Arkansas, Illinois and Georgia have taken action against the company. Not so in Texas.

“We have no complaints over the past two years on this company,” says Tom Kelley, spokesman for the Texas attorney general’s office. “No legal action either.”

The Better Business Bureau at Fort Worth gives the company an “F” rating because of complaints. But the BBB’s Web site shows that almost all the complaints — 120 in the past year — have been resolved by the company.

“We’ve done very well, I think,” says McBeth, who adds that he personally works to resolve complaints. “We may have had a few problems a decade ago…Any company has its growing pains. They are certainly straightened out right now.”

John Riggins, head of the Fort Worth BBB, says, “The source of complaints is basically the same thing over and over — businesses complaining about poor quality of products or sales tactics or billing errors.”

The company operates under several names, including Premier Map Co., Hometown Productions, Multi Marketing Corp., D & L Map Service, Gildenblatt Enterprises and Texas High School Publications, the BBB says.

The listed owner is Tom Gildenblatt, who owns two houses in Southlake, according to county tax records. I called him and sent a letter requesting an interview, but he didn’t respond.

Two people I interviewed for this report shared examples of the company’s sales tactics.

Fred Richardson, former owner of a Palestine printing and advertising company that creates chamber maps throughout Texas, said the company tells chamber members they are creating an official chamber map.

A few years ago, he got a call from the company asking whether he wanted to renew his company’s ad in the Palestine map. Richardson didn’t recall buying an ad from the company, so he asked the salesperson to fax him a copy of the ad.

When it arrived, he saw that it was his own ad from a map he had produced for the chamber. His copyright information was included on the fax.

He recalls asking the salesperson, “Do I need to get an attorney?”

The salesperson replied, “I can’t talk to you anymore” and hung up, he says.

He never complained and never filed legal action because his lawyer said legal costs would outweigh any settlement he would receive.

When I interviewed Nancy Wyatt, president of the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce in Washington state last week, she said she had received a call from the company that morning. The salesperson said that he was moving to Auburn and requested a relocation packet, she said. She recognized the company from her Caller ID.

That’s their tactic to get a list of the chamber members and also see who advertises on their maps and other items, she said.

“They’re hitting our members at the same time we’re doing our legitimate projects,” she says. “We’ve educated our members to the point now that unless they get an e-mail that we’re heading into our project, they know immediately to call the chamber office when they get a call like that.”

A few years ago, she continued, a company rep called her and said, “Nancy at the Auburn Area Chamber sent me to you.”

She recalls replying, “That’s funny. I happen to be Nancy at the Auburn Area Chamber.”

She added, “They’re so blatant.”

McBeth, the company’s general counsel, says the company has a sales agreement with every entity it does business with. I asked him to provide a sample copy of the agreement, but he declined.

Meanwhile, a former saleswoman for the company, Sherrell Mpizion, sued the company last year in Tarrant County district court. She claimed that she was fired because she had complained that she was tired of misrepresenting herself in sales calls “as employees of cities or chambers of commerce.”

In her lawsuit, Mpizion says her boss told her to “be an actress” and “say whatever it takes” to get a sale.

A year ago, the suit claims, she was fired because she was “poison” in the company and had gossiped in the office.

The company, in court papers, denies every allegation in the lawsuit and claims that Mpizion resigned and was not fired. “No evidence exists” to support her lawsuit, McBeth wrote in court papers.

Mpizion’s lawyer, R.S. Rhio, declined to comment.

McBeth calls Mpizion “a disgruntled employee trying to seek extra money in these hard times.”

The case has not yet come to trial.

News researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.