By Ralph Vartabedian
Minneapolis Star Staff Writer
Automotive president Gary Courneya has parlayed a $2,500 investment
into a multimillion dollar corporation in just 10 years. But, along
the way, he has left a trail of angry people and lawsuits across
Courneya is still "selling the sizzle."
a Florida tan and stylish attire, he recently flew back to the Twin
Cities and told a news conference he had a signed agreement to produce
a "super car." It would go 130 miles on a gallon of gas, he claimed.
kind of a superdeal would certainly help Courneya's Plymouth-based
kit car firm, which is operating under the Federal Bankruptcy Code.
Courneya, accused of fast talking more than once, saw his company
go into a financial tailspin last year.
the promise of a supercar could be a long shot. The organization
on the other end of the supercar deal, headed by race-car mechanic
Ralph Moody, says it had signed no contract with Courneya, although
it is discussing a possible deal.
is energetically persisting in his effort to build a supercar, and
recently testified in bankruptcy court that he has even accepted
two deposits totaling $10,000 for deliveries of the vehicle.
36, has overcome tremendous odds in getting to where he is. He grew
up in Detroit Lakes, Minn., one of eight children of a mailman.
He says he worked on a loading dock as a teen-ager. After graduation
from high school, he worked as a bartender. He later polished his
selling act as a sportswear salesman in Beverly Hills, Calif.
the odds seem to be mounting once again against the president and
co-founder of Bradley Automotive.
Bradley has been operating under Chapter 11 of the federal
bankruptcy laws since last fall, after Franklin National Bank of
Minneapolis cut off its credit and seized more than $100,000 the
company had on deposit.
Among other things, the bank said, Courneya
was bleeding the corporation by taking big loans at a time when
Bradley Automotive was losing money and failing to pay delinquent
The loans, which went to Courneya and four other directors,
officers and stockholders, exceeded $130,000, according to court
records. Several of the loans, including part of Courneya's, are
still unpaid. Some of the loans were even renewed just several days
before the company went into bankruptcy court.
last fall took a precipitous dive after seven salesmen defected
to a competing company. The salesmen told The Star they wanted to
escape the pressure and hyped-up environment of Bradley Automotive.
Courneya subsequently went to court to prevent further defections.
The ceiling was caving in after years of mistakes. The Minnesota
Attorney General was investigating the firm for deceptive sales
practices. And today many of Bradley's old friends say the company
took an excursion into a seamier side of corporate existence.
result has been numerous lawsuits. Bradley has been sued by its
stockholders, employees, customers, bankers and suppliers. Much
of the time Bradley lost or settled out of court.
But beyond the
suits, Bradley Automotive has left a trail of angry people who feel
the company deceived them, took them for fools and, most importantly,
took their money.
"They are very smooth talkers," said Thomas Duckwall,
a former customer in North Carolina. "I've run into the same thing
in the worm raising business."
But at one time Bradley Automotive
was a prominent member of the Twin Cities business community.
had led in the transformation of the kit car industry from a backyard
operation into a high volume business, on the relied heavily on
hyped-up telephone sales techniques.
The product the company sells
is a flashy fiberglass sportscar shell that purchasers assemble
themselves and plop onto the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle. The
kits cost about $5,000, and the buyers must obtain their own Volkswagen.
The money really flowed in the heyday of the company. It was a fast
cash, high margin business with little capital overhead. Bradley
Automotive doesn't really produce anything. Every major component
of the car is jobbed out. And sales produce quick revenue, since
customers pay cash on delivery.
Bradley Automotive President Gary Courneya
Star Photo by Charles Bjorgen
And former Bradley salesmen said kits were typically shipped short
of parts. "Sometimes, they would ship a kit and then they "the customers"
would call back and ask, 'Where are the bumpers? Where is the steering
wheel?' " recalled former salesman James Newman.
Dave DeWuske, another
former salesman now at a competing kit car company, said, "We never
once shipped a complete kit while I was there."
Courneya said the
Bradley kit car has an average of 1,200 parts. Cars were sometimes
sent short of certain parts that were on back order, he explained.
The parts would then be sent after delivery of the kit, he said.
The cars sometimes ran afoul of state automobile equipment laws.
A Florida customer won a $3,570 judgment against Bradley Automotive
because the headlights of the car were not high enough off the ground.
Courneya said state laws are often more stringent than federal Department
of Transportation standards.
The sales practices at Bradley led
many salesmen to short careers at the company. "It was a revolving
door," one salesman said, "When I left after nine months, there
was only one guy who had been there longer."
Finally, the dam burst
on Bradley and seven key salesmen left the company last fall to
take jobs at a competing company, Fiberfab Inc., which was setting
up operations in Minneapolis.
Courneya claims the defections led
to a drop of $300,000 in sales in October and was one reason the
company sought protection in bankruptcy court. Shortly after sales
dropped, Bradley Automotive's line of credit at Franklin National
Bank was called and its deposits were seized. Several days later
it filed papers in bankruptcy court.
A flurry of lawsuits has followed.
Bradley won an injunction against the defecting former salesmen,
preventing them from luring any more salesmen away. The bank sued
Bradley and Bradley countersued.
The bank cases were settled out
of court recently and Bradley agreed to repay its outstanding debts
to the bank at the rate of $2,500 weekly. It also agreed to pay
the bank's legal fees of $18,000.
As for the future of Bradley Automotive,
things may be looking up. After losses for three months during the
winter, the company has shown a modest profit for the past three
months. Over the past six months, the company has lost about $18,000,
according to testimony in bankruptcy court.
Goodbye to the Jaguars
The improvement points up the lavish style of living that had contributed
to the firm's problems. Gone are the Jaguars, the boat and the fancy
offices. Some big salaries were slashed by order of the court, as
"The company I don't believe has been lavish," Courneya said.
Many of the cutbacks wee more for show that anything else, he said.
"If you are in Chapter 11 and you drive up in a Jaguar, what are
the creditors going to say?" he remarked.
Courneya also has repaid
some of the cash advances he took. At a recent court hearing he
paid about $77,000 to the corporation, borrowing heavily to do so.
Another loan recipient, David Fuller, is both a creditor and a Bradley
Fuller, who co-founded Bradley Automotive, received
the loan before he bailed out of the company about a year ago. His
own company, Autocraft Inc., sold fiberglass bodies to Bradley Automotive
before the account went delinquent.
No legal action from any party
has directly followed from the loans, but an attorney for the creditors
of Bradley Automotive has maintained the loans violated Minnesota
state law. The violation would be a civil violation, not a criminal
one, says Gerald Laurie, the creditors' attorney.
"It was not illegal,
absolutely not," responds James McGovern, attorney for Bradley Automotive.
Barring further mishaps, Courneya says Bradley Automotive will pull
out of Chapter 11 as a profitable company. Creditors have approved
the repayment plan--which calls for creditors with claims exceeding
$2,000 to be paid 60 cents on the dollar--and Judge Nordin has confirmed
The judge said proceedings will continue for several months,
to settle disputed creditor claims. Execution of the repayment plan
is scheduled to take three years.
The company became a toast of the
town. It moved to prestigious executive offices at Shelard Plaza,
which rented for about $5,000 a month.
Bradley Automotive had cars
on display at major airports and advertised in a long list of established
And Bradley acquired Jaguars for Courneya and his wife.
A 28-foot company cabin cruiser was purchased for weekend fun.
tabs at fashionable liquor lounges were amassed as Courneya attempted
to impress those around him, according to his former salesmen who
have ranged from writers to stockbrokers.
"I asked him once, 'Gary,
what is the most important thing in the world?' He said, 'Millions
of dollars, millions of dollars, millions of dollars,'" recalled
a former Bradley salesman. "He's a spender. He's the craziest guy
I've ever seen."
And Courneya had the requisite flamboyance for
the business. He personally sold kit cars to big name auto buffs
like Sen. Barry Goldwater and Liberace.
"Gary has a big ego. He
is very flamboyant. He loves the fancy clothes," remarked Donald
Soukup, president of Community Investment Enterprises Inc. a St.
Louis Park venture capital firm holding stock in Bradley Automotive.
Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. even featured Courneya in full-page
advertisements testifying to the success of telephone sales techniques.
It was ironically called Phone Power.
But the sales crew at Bradley
Automotive had another name for the supersell it so proudly perfected,
according to its former salesmen. It was called "selling the sizzle."
That meant "burning the britches off the customer."
And in the process
of building sales to an annual level of $8 million in just a few
years, more than britches were reportedly burned. Some customers
say they were financially burned in the process. Many former salesmen
The sales pitch
Basically, the sales pitch to potential customers
went like this:
"Buy a Bradley GT and not only will we sell you
the car at a factory-direct discount wholesale price, but we'll
make you a sales representative for the company and you can earn
plenty of money just showing your Bradley GT to potential customers.
And our records show that you will be the first Bradley sales representative
in your area."
But interviews with a number of former customers
by The Star indicated that many elements of the offer were deceptive
in some cases, and untrue in others.
The Minnesota attorney gen-eral's
office, meanwhile, alleged last fall that Bradley Automotive had
engaged in misrepresentation. An investigation directed by Christie
Eller, Minnesota special assistant attorney general, prompted bankruptcy
Judge Hartley Nordin to order Bradley to stop making misrepresentations,
and to stop offering customers sales representative positions as
an inducement to buy a kit car.
The investigation sub-stantiated
much of what the customers had been saying: That supposed discount
prices were the usual prices; that the company didn't always provide
sales leads to field representatives, and that many customers were
told they would be the only representatives even when others already
"It was the only time I was ever involved in that
kind of a business," recalled former salesman Robert Stubbs. "They
went as far as to out-and-out lie to people. The zone managers would
say, 'Tell the customers anything they want to hear.' "
the company after half a year. He subsequently sued Bradley Automotive
for back wages in Hennepin County District Court and won. Other
former employees also went to court to seek judgments against the
Many persons apparently bought Bradley GTs with the intention
of earning money part time as sales representative.
the block Alton Cochran of Atlanta bought a Bradley with that hope.
But the hope soon disintegrated into disillusionment.
involved in the transaction "was gifted with what I call a silver
tongue" recalled Cochran.
"He said they were looking for four representatives
in the state of Georgia alone, and they had only one so far in Savannah.
Still skeptical, I checked with the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota.
I also went to a lawyer who said everything was in order. They said
they were all on the up and up."
But pretty soon Cochran started
noticing that there were other Bradley Automotive representatives.
First, in the metropolitan Atlanta area. And later, the representatives
started popping up in his own neighborhood--just down the block
in one case. They were all told the same story, according to Cochran
"So I called Bradley and told them they lied to me and
I wanted my money back. They said they couldn't do that. Well, I
didn't feel so dumb after talking with this other guy who got taken
in, because he was a dentist and this other guy who got taken in
was a car dealer," he added.
Others tell similar stories. They claim
they were led to believe they would be exclusive representatives
for Bradley. And they purchased the car solely on the basis of a
"We have three children and we don't really
have the money to own a sorts car like that," explained Mrs. Robert
Sherrill, the wife of a diesel mechanics instructor who bought a
Bradley GT. "My husband was told he would be the only distributor
in Georgia. And all the time there was another one two blocks away,
and another one mile away."
William Tender, an Atlanta architect,
also said he wouldn't have bought his Bradley if he had known he
couldn't sell cars for a profit.
"After the treatment I received
I lost my interest in representing them," Tender said. "I wouldn't
want to do to somebody else what they had done to me. I think they
abused us terribly. We all got mud on our face and looked rather
Courneya, responding to the accusations, maintained that
the company had a policy of never offering exclusive areas to potential
sales representatives. He said salesmen who didn't follow the policy
were fired, although he couldn't recall precisely how many had been
fired for that reason.
Kits missing parts
"Selling the sizzle--I
have heard the expression before," he said. "It is a nice phrase,
but I don't think selling the sizzle generates the kind of sales
we have achieved," he said.
"This business about exclusive (representatives)
came up in not more than five circumstances," Courneya said. He
adds that the company paid out $100,000 to $150,000 in sales commissions
last year to field representatives.
Another recurrent customer complaint
was that kits were missing parts and that the amount of work necessary
to assemble the kits was much greater than the company advertised.
Robert Sherrill, who teaches at an Atlanta-area vocational education
school, said the company told him that assembly could be accomplished
in 90 to 150 hours. "I suppose by the time you built your fourth
car you would get it down to 150 hours," he said. I thought you
would already have the holes drilled. The seats weren't even upholstered."