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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" 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, the area that gave Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton his start and later attracted transplants such as Ku Klux Klansman Thom Robb.
After high school, Talley moved north to Wichita, Kansas, enrolled at Wichita State University and took a part-time job with the Boeing aircraft company. He abandoned college after opening an appliance store called 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 fourteen 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 cofounded 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 says, 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 [his] 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.