Couple blew the whistle, lost it all and then won Perry Hall pair now run firm they sued

June 20, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Bill and Joann Hardy met, fell in love, married and built careers together while working at National Computer Ribbons Corp. -- a small but growing cash register supply company in Timonium.

Then, in November 1991, they discovered documents they thought indicated their boss was skimming money from the company.

Their 18-month battle to right what they thought was wrong cost them their jobs, savings and peace of mind. Broke and unemployed, they had to stave off foreclosure on their home while fighting for redemption in the courts.

The Hardys' frustration and despair is typical of corporate whistle-blowers. But there is one important difference in their tale -- the Hardys won.

Last month, a Baltimore County civil jury awarded the Perry Hall couple $3 million in a wrongful discharge and defamation suit against the company and their former boss, Philip E. Berringer of Cockeysville.

And on June 11, the company's board voted to replace Mr. Berringer, who had been president, with Mr. Hardy. The board also voted to recall Mr. Berringer's stock, giving control of the 30-employee company to Mr. Hardy.

Now, firmly in charge of the company, the Hardys are trying to put their lives back together.

"For one and a half years, we had no future, no hope," Mr. Hardy says.

But now, Mrs. Hardy adds, "We have a job. We have meaning in our life. I never thought I'd be so happy to put in 14 hours a day."

A battle over corporate control would have seemed far-fetched in 1985, when National Computer Ribbons was a failing, debt-ridden mail-order distributor. Mr. Hardy, one of the company's three founders, and Mr. Berringer agreed that the best way to save the company was to let Mr. Berringer round up investors and contribute machinery so that the company could become a manufacturer. Mr. Hardy, the sole co-founder who remained, held 10 shares of stock and worked as a salesperson.

They were unlikely allies. Mr. Berringer is described by acquaintances as a charismatic Robert Redford look-alike who favors $1,000 suits and loves cars, especially Mercedes-Benzes. Through his attorneys, he declined to be interviewed, while maintaining that he has done nothing illegal.) Mr. Hardy, a former Army captain, is a wiry rugby player who prefers more casual attire.

L And they often argued. But the restructured company thrived.

Outlook was sunny

As one of the few U.S.-based manufacturers of ribbon cartridges for cash registers, the company found ready buyers among the U.S. government and other groups that wanted to "buy American." Sales rose from $500,000 in 1986 to $4 million in 1991, Mr. Hardy says, and the company expanded to meet demand, growing from four workers to more than two dozen.

One of the new production workers was Joann Murphy, a mechanical whiz who was a divorced mother of a teen-age son. When she met Mr. Hardy, she disliked him, figuring he was one of the rich men who ran the company.

But one evening, she was paired up with him at a co-worker's wedding. At the wedding dinner, she decided to test him by dropping green beans off of her plate one at a time. Instead of being annoyed, he politely picked each one off the floor.

So, when he asked her out on a date later that night, she said

yes. They married in 1990.

As National Computer Ribbons grew, Mr. Hardy's commissions rose and Mrs. Hardy was promoted to production manager. By the fall of 1991, the couple had a combined income of about $110,000. They had just bought a house and two new cars, and were about to go on a long-delayed honeymoon.

"Our life was perfect," Mrs. Hardy recalls. "There wasn't anything we wanted."

Then, one Friday in October of 1991, Mrs. Hardy says, she was called into a meeting about National Computer Ribbons' finances. Costs were skyrocketing, the company's accountant said, and unless that stopped, National Computer Ribbons would fail within months.

Mrs. Hardy recalls that Mr. Berringer exploded, claiming that the problem was inventory shortages. Mrs. Hardy was responsible for inventory, Mr. Berringer pointed out, insisting that she take home all records and pinpoint the problem.

"I got very upset," she says. "I knew it wasn't possible" that, as Mr. Berringer seemed to imply, she or her workers were stealing ribbon cartridges.

Frightened for her job, she enlisted her husband's help and went through invoices. One item caught Mr. Hardy's eye. Bills for a supplier, E&L Enterprises Inc., had the same Florida address as Mr. Berringer's parents.

Receipts showed that National Computer Ribbons had paid Eleanor and Leo Berringer more than $238,000 in four years for manufacturing subcontracting work on hundreds of thousands of cassettes.

But Mr. Hardy, who had visited Mr. Berringer at his parents' trailer park home, knew that Mrs. Berringer was blind and the elder Mr. Berringer was in his late 80s. Mr. Hardy doubted they could do much work on the plastic ribbon cassettes. And Mrs. Hardy said she had never received large shipments of cassettes from a supplier in Florida.

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