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Small-business nightmare.

Call it a cautionary tale for queer entrepreneurs. Margaret Broderick and her partner, Angee Walberry, had high hopes for Gaia Wines Inc., a winery and shop they opened in Indianapolis in 1996. Broderick, a lifelong entrepreneur, and Walberry, an amateur winemaker, put everything they had into the business, and by 2003, Gaia had more than surpassed the women's expectations. Over six years they posted an average yearly growth rate of 34%, and as the company's president Walberry was twice an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award finalist. They had begun selling wine to brokers in Illinois, Kentucky, and even Singapore.

But after the relationship with their lender, Heartland Community Bank in nearby Franklin, suddenly went sour in February 2003, the women found themselves in a kind of small-business owners' hell, faced not only with closing Gaia but with a lawsuit and the possible seizure of their home by the bank.

"Rather than just move on, we decided that we needed to do something," Broderick says by phone from Indianapolis. "Everyone kept telling us to let it go, that because it was a bank, it was right. But it wasn't right. So we decided to fight."

First, they refused to shut up. Broderick, 45, turned the couple's experience into a book, Passion v. Arrogance: A Dana & Goliath Story of Wine, Women, and Wrong! And now she and Walberry, 44, are out to win vindication: After many delays, a jury trial--comprising both the bank's lawsuit and the women's counterclaim--commences January 17.

What is not in dispute is that in 2003, Heartland decided not to approve a new loan package, reported at the time to be as much as $1 million (Broderick declined to comment on the dollar amount), to subsidize Gaia's expansion. Rather than seek expansion financing from another bank--or maintain their 2003 operating level--the women chose to close Gaia.

"Based on [the bank's] commitments, we had developed relationships with distributors and foreign markets that demanded increasing production," Broderick says. "We weren't told by the institution they couldn't do the expansion financing until it was too late to continue." So the women quietly announced they were closing down, planning to liquidate Gaia's assets and pay off their loan balance over the 90-day period they thought was guaranteed by their contract with Heartland.

But the bank reportedly disagreed that such a window of time was offered and obtained a court order to close Gaia early, then asked Broderick and Walberry to pay back 30% of the outstanding loan balance immediately. When the women did not comply, Heartland filed suit to foreclose on the women's home, which had been put up as loan collateral, according to a 2004 Indianapolis Business Journal story. (Michael Lewinski of Ice Miller, Heartland's counsel, declined to comment on the case to The Advocate.)

Eventually Brederick and Walberry filed a counterclaim against the bank, citing breach of contract, wrongful possession, failing to act in a commercially reasonable manner, and unlawful disposal and damage of corporate assets--they claim that more than $100,000 worth of wine spoiled because Heartland waited too long to sell it. Their claim also holds that had they been given more time, they could have repaid the loan in full.

Soon a jury will decide their case. But whatever the verdict, these business and 13-year life partners won't go quietly. "The whole idea that this can never happen is wrong," says Broderick. "People need to know what happened to us so they can better plan to make sure it doesn't happen to them."

PROTECTING YOUR SMALL BUSINESS

Broderick offers these tips for smallbusiness owners to avoid what happened to her and Walberry:

* Research anyone with whom you plan to do business and read contracts thoroughly before signing them. "Not everything a bank has you sign is really in your best interest." she says. In fact, much of the paperwork lenders put before you is to protect their investment.

* The best deal is seldom the first one, nor is it necessarily the fifth, As long as they keep coming, keep entertaining the options, because each new negotiation offers new information.

* People are motivated to act within their time frame, not yours. The best you can hope for is to tap into their motivation to meet your time frame.

* When someone signals that he is incapable I of an action, believe him. If he fails to act in a professional and proactive manner, understand and accept that it is not currently with

* Don't be afraid to ask for further explanation or eleventh-hour revisions to contracts protect yourself signal not a lack of business sense but rather the presence of business savvy.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:THE ADVOCATE REPORT
Author:Henderson, William
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jan 30, 2007
Words:773
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