Monday, April 19, 2010

The Ethical Collapse of a Car Dealer?

Over three weeks ago it was reported in the media that John Pierson, had sold his ownership in John Pierson’s Toyota of Stuart to Southeast Toyota, LLC, the independent distributor for Toyota in the Southeast USA. John Pierson said that this was something that he had been contemplating for several months and his decision was motivated by personal reasons, particularly his pending divorce and child custody issues.

But, but soon after it was reported by Eve Samples, a reporter for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers that Southeast Toyota, LLC had, in fact, fired John Pierson and forcibly bought him out because “he (John Pierson) engaged in self-dealing and illegally diverted dealership money for his personal use.” You can read her article by clicking on It’s entitled “Philanthropist, Former Owner Pierson Denies Diverting Business money for Personal Use”. Subsequently Eve Samples reported that John Pierson has counter sued Southeast Toyota for defamation of character.

Now, I know have no first hand knowledge of any illegal activities by John Pierson with respect to Southeast Toyota. But I have been aware for a long time of many car buyers from the Treasure Coast who complained about being taken advantage of at John Pierson’s dealership. A lot of Toyota buyers drive all the way from Stuart and Hobe Sound down to North Palm Beach and buy their cars and have them serviced at my dealership. And they tell me why they drive so far.

If you read Eve Sample’s article in the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspaper you will read that John Pierson began his huge philanthropic efforts (over $1 million per year) “after his dealership was sued by more than a dozen elderly customers who believe they were duped into overpaying for vehicles.” The attorney representing these customers called me several times to consult about the alleged illegal and deceptive sales practices. He asked if I would testify against John Pierson but I had to respectfully decline to voluntarily testify against a fellow Toyota dealer, especially my closest competitor to the north. According to the attorney, many customers said they came in to buy a car for cash but were tricked into leasing. Some said they thought they were trading in their car but received no credit for it against their lease. Others said that they were told that if they didn’t like their lease car they could return it at anytime and not have to make any more lease payment.

I’ve also received dozens of calls, email, and letters directly from frightened and angry former customers of John Pierson’s, most of whom were elderly and many of those were recent widows, who were buying or leasing their first car. In most cases, there was nothing they could do. They signed the contracts without reading them and the alleged verbal assurances made to them by the salesmen and managers were later denied.

You may know that I spoke before the Workforce Alliance (a non profit organization) in January when I sponsored their speaker, Marianne Jennings, at the West Palm Beach Kravis Center. She’s authored about a dozen books including The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse. Marianne Jennings was also a guest caller on my weekly radio show, Earl Stewart on Cars. She has spent a lifetime studying business ethics and is professor at Arizona State University where she teaches ethics. In fact, you really should read this the book. I gave away twelve copies, one to each of my senior managers.

Chapter 8 of this book is entitled “Sign #7; Goodness in Some Areas Atones for Evil in Others”. This chapter warns readers to beware of businesses and business executives whose “philanthropic and social goodness became the salve for a conscience grappling with cooked books, fraud, insider training—all the usual activities of ethical collapse.”

What do Ken Lay of Enron, Bernard Ebbers of World Com, Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco, John Rigas of Adelphia, Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth all have in common with John Pierson of Toyota of Stuart? There are two things that jump right out…they all gave very large sums of money to charities and were later accused of unethical and illegal activities. Let me make it perfectly clear than John Pierson has not been found guilty of anything and may be totally exonerated. In fact, he has sued Southeast Toyota for defamation of character and may win his suit. But John Pierson did admit that he began giving millions dollars to local charities to overcome the negative image he gained when accused by more than a dozen local elderly customers of being defrauded by his dealership.

John F Kennedy said “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic”. Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Dennis Kozlowski, John Rigas, Richard Scrushy, and John Pierson were held in high regard by their customers and stockholders by a myth. By his own admission, John Pierson said that he began the millions of dollars of charitable contributions to change his negative image in the community.

If you haven’t read Marianne Jennings’s book, I highly recommend that you do. Had Southeast Toyota, the local media and authorities read chapter 8, they may have seen this coming five years ago.

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