When Big Box Attacks: Local Pet Groomer Served With “Non-compete” Suit at Grand Opening

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Sometimes it’s just not enough for a Big Box retailer to dominate a market segment, to move into a TIF-created shopping center that leveled homes and other sometimes historic structure. For those times there’s the big hammer of corporate lawyers. At the very least, Petsmart is guilty of bad judgment in serving a lawsuit at a small business grand opening. But more likely they’re guilty of trying to crush any competition with imposing litigation costs.

A Walk in the Park pet grooming just opened in Tower Grove South and pet “stylist” Chris lee is accused of violating a non-compete clause from his time spent at Petsmart. Citing “trade-secrets” the Big Box pet store claims Chris is using what Petsmart taught him to run his business. Now, someone with more knowledge of the law should render an opinion on this, but I’m going to guess that Petsmart is simply being heavy-handed here. The open letter on the website can be read here.

A Walk in the Park isn’t taking the lawsuit lying down. Mark Langevin has posted a long letter on the company’s website detailing the issue and asking for help to put pressure on Petsmart to drop the suit. Well, I don’t know what it’s worth, but here’s one blog posting calling for Petsmart to cease and desist their anti-competition effort. Shouldn’t it be enough that they benefit from tax subsidies and demolition in our city?

From Chris’ bio on A Walk in the Park’s website:

Chris started his career in 1983 as a show groomer in Dallas, Texas. He now has over 26 years experience in all breed grooming. Chris was certified as a master stylist in 1986 and has continued to maintain the highest standards in his field. After being awarded numerous blue ribbons in the show ring and creative cut competitions, Chris opened his first salon in Dallas. He now offers the residents of Saint Louis, MO. an upscale spa and boutique for pampered pets, featuring the highest quality of pet styles, services, and products.

Full text of A Walk In The Park’s letter:

Dear Clients, Friends & Neighbors,

As you know, we have just opened our new pet grooming salon, A Walk in the Park, at 3892 Wyoming at the corner of Gustine and Wyoming. This neighborhood seems a perfect fit for our salon. First, we live within the neighborhood and therefore appreciate the level of pride that exists and continues to grow here; opening a business at this location serves to deepen our involvement and commitment to our community. Additionally, this is an area rife with dogs and cats that are well served by the presence of a grooming salon. Many of you have expressed your enthusiasm at having pet grooming back in the neighborhood and for this we thank you. There are those who do not even own animals who have stopped in to welcome us and express their delight at seeing a new business, attractively presented, in their neighborhood where a vacant store front stood for nearly two years. We are grateful that the neighborhood has been so welcoming to us and supportive of our business venture, particularly in view of these economically trying times. However,…

WE NEED YOUR HELP!

A Walk in the Park is currently under attack. We hosted our Grand Opening Party on Sunday, November 8th from 2-6pm and posted that information on our website (awalkintheparkgrooming.com). At 2pm on that Sunday, in front of our guests, we were served by Petsmart’s attorneys. Petsmart, Inc. is suing us under a “non-compete” clause and threatens to shut our doors.

Chris Lee worked for Petsmart for 6 years beginning in October of 2003 and, in fact, signed a contract with Petsmart in order to obtain that employment. No counsel was given for explanation of the contract save the undeniable fact that a position would not be given without a signature. In good faith, Chris believed that since he had not worked at the Petsmart located at Kingshighway and Chippewa for over a year (he had been working in Illinois) that he had abided by any binding “non-compete” agreement that he had with Petsmart.

The suit brought by Petsmart claims that Chris was given Petsmart’s training and “trade-secrets” which he is now utilizing to unfairly compete with them. Our response is simple. Chris brought over 20 years of grooming experience to the table when he joined Petsmart. He had owned and operated his own salon in the Dallas, Texas area before moving to St. Louis in late 2002. Chris’ talents in grooming were utilized by Petsmart to teach its internal grooming “Academy” for the training of new Petsmart groomers and Chris was frequently praised for his superb execution of this training program above other trainers by two different District Managers. In short, Petsmart didn’t teach Chris anything about the grooming industry but, in fact, took advantage of what he was able to teach them.

Further, the suit claims that Chris had taken client lists which he is alleged to have solicited to the detriment of Petsmart. No such client list has ever been taken from Petsmart by anyone who works at A Walk In The Park. Undeniably, we are now serving clients who have been or are still customers of Petsmart. But, this has not come about through the theft and solicitation of mailing lists, client roles, or email lists. Of our clients with whom we have spoken on the subject and who have been or are still customers of Petsmart, we have identified four different groups.

· CONVENIENCE: First, many of our clients have simply come to us because we are conveniently located within this neighborhood. The only advertising we have done is to place a sandwich board on the corner in front of the salon. Additionally, we have taken an ongoing ad in the Tower Grove Heights Gazette the first of which has not even been published yet. We don’t even have a listing in the yellow pages. Obviously then, none of these people came to us out of some calculated direct solicitation of Petsmart’s clients.
· DEVOTION: There are a number of clients who have followed Chris because of his talents. This is the same as following a hair-dresser from one salon to another. If a person is happy, they will follow the service provider even if they have to hunt them down as some people have done with Chris. One customer followed him from South City all the way to Glen Carbon. Similarly, another customer has come all the way from Edwardsville now after locating him.
· SMALL-BUSINESS MINDED: Some people would rather spend their money in support of local small business instead of with large corporate behemoths.
· DISGUSTED: The final group of people who are now coming to Chris here at A Walk In The Park are people who have become disillusioned and fervently opposed to taking their beloved pets in to be groomed at Petsmart. I would like these people to tell their own story(ies).

Until this all happened, we were, like many of you, Petsmart’s retail customers buying our dog food there amongst other things. We have even been referring other people there for specific products. Obviously, we did not avail ourselves of their grooming services and equally as obvious, we won’t be spending our money there any longer or referring others.

Frequently, we all hear people in the media as well as politicians tell us that ‘the consumer is best served when there is real competition in the marketplace’. We believe that also. We believe that your pets are better served in this manner as well. If this suit is to be taken at face value, then it seems that Petsmart does not believe in this ideal. Is this just another case of corporate greed overriding concern for the well being of the community in which it is located?

Another thing we hear incessantly is how important small business is to the overall economy and how small business is the real driver of economic growth and job creation. Can it be that corporate bullies are reaching into this community and trying to restrict small business in order to protect what they believe to be “their markets”?

I am pleased to let you know that local attorney and incoming President of the Tower Grove Business Association, Jennifer A. Coke, located at 3187 Morgan Ford, has agreed to represent us in this matter. Jennifer is someone who has spent a great deal of time fighting Banks on foreclosure issues in order to keep our neighbors in their homes. We are very comforted that she is not afraid to go up against “the big boys” and brings a level of experience and confidence that is equal to the task.

I believe strongly that we can beat this lawsuit on its merits in a court of law. The law and legal precedence speak loudly when striking down such over-expansive language in non-compete clauses. In our case, as with others that have been won against Petsmart, Chris lives and requires employment in a city in which there are 13 Petsmart locations. This makes it virtually impossible for Chris to practice his trade (of 26 + years) anywhere within the city without crossing into one of Petsmarts “marketing areas”. Therefore by seeking enforcement of such broad terms, Petsmart is attempting to abridge Chris’ right to earn a living.

All of this having been said, let me finally get to the point of this letter. A protracted legal battle may have the very impact that Petsmart desires. Conceivably, the costs associated with this could drive us out of business. Although we are prepared to do what we must, we believe that there is another way to stop this whole thing. We must bring pressure to bear on Petsmart in order to convince them to withdraw this suit. In order to accomplish this, we must have community support.

We are asking you, our neighbors to speak up with your voices, your letters, your phone calls, your internet postings and blogs, and most of all with careful consideration about where you spend your dollars. I am including the names and numbers of Petsmart executives that we believe to be involved in this lawsuit, as well as the mailing address of Petsmart’s Corporate Offices. Also included is Petsmarts corporate “800” Customer Comment line. Please contact these individuals and make your thoughts and feelings known to them. Next, please spread the word. Talk to friends and pet owners. Mobilize your friends on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or your favorite local blog. Hopefully, with enough support, Petsmart may come to feel that it is shooting itself in the foot and that this proud community which has worked so hard to make our neighborhood what it is will not tolerate this kind of stuff.

Phil Benoist, Store Director, Petsmart, 4621 Chippewa St, St Louis, MO 63116
(Kingshighway & Chippewa) 314-776-7608
Bob Wurth, District Manager, (800) 738-1385, ext. 6688
Chuck Paul, Regional Director, (800) 738-1385, ext. 6790
Customer comment/complaint line: (800) 738-1385, Menu Option 2
Petsmart, Inc., Corporate Offices, 19601 No. 27th Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85027

If anything in this letter has touched home for you; if you believe that this community deserves to have a grooming salon in its midst and that you as well as your pets are better served; if you believe that our small business deserves a chance to grow and thrive here in the community in which we live and are invested; if you believe that corporate bullies should not be allowed to squash competition in the name of shareholder profits or if you simply believe in the local benefits of having a clean, respectable, attractive and successful business on these streets instead of “FOR LEASE” signs adorning empty windows, then again we ask for your help.

In closing, I want to thank all of you. First, for enduring this very long letter. Second, for welcoming us the way you have. And finally, for the support I trust that you will extend to us now. On behalf of Chris, Megan, Melissa and myself, thank you, my friends and neighbors.

Mark Langevin
A Walk in the Park

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