A federal judge forces the boys of Rent-a-Center to clean up their bad behavior.

Past Due 

A federal judge forces the boys of Rent-a-Center to clean up their bad behavior.

Page 5 of 10

In 1989, Talley re-entered the rent-to-own business by becoming a partner in Vista Rent-to-Own, which had stores in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. He also teamed up with his son, Mike Talley, to form Talley Leasing -- with stores in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Tampa, Florida. Talley's appliance businesses complemented his apartment properties: Tenants could lease items from his appliance store.

In 1993, Talley formed Renter's Choice and merged Vista into the new company. Then began a series of mergers and acquisitions as Talley gobbled up smaller chains such as Crown Leasing, Magic Rent-to-Own, Kelway Rent-to-Own, ColorTyme and Central Rents. By May 1998, Talley had amassed 700 stores throughout the United States, but his still wasn't the biggest rent-to-own chain.

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 August 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.

Angela Turner, an administrative assistant, claimed in a sworn statement that when she wore a skirt to work, 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 alleged 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 coworker relations."

By the end of 1998, the Wichita headquarters had been closed and everything had been consolidated in Plano, Texas. 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 earned $74,000 in salary and commissions, was one of the women Rent-a-Center's spokesman suggested that a reporter 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."

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