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.

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