The Marshall, Mich.-based distributor closed in late February and recently filed bankruptcy, never recovering from a 2013 embezzlement case in which a former president of the company pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement of $160,000, according to JR Watts, who co-owned the business with his wife, Ruby.
“Basically, I’m 100 percent out of the business, and won’t be back in it, and it’s a shame; all because of one guy,” Watts said.
Watts said he’d considered alternatives to bankruptcy, fielding offers from “four or five” people who had interest in buying BR Wholesale, but wasn’t able to find a buyer suitable or serious enough to run the company and it’s $700,000 inventory.
In addition to money spent out-of-pocket, Watts had owned the company’s building for years, but sold it recently to pay off lenders.
“It’s going to make a big difference with me because I tell you what, I never want to go back to that again,” he said. “That’s a part in my life that I never dreamed or understood how bad it could be. It really kicked my butt because it’s a moral issue. I tried to do it right all the time, but I have no say-so now; it’s all out of my hands.”
While he’s sad to close the doors on his business, Watts said he’s relieved to see some resolution to the issue that his plagued his business and personal life for the past two years.
“I’m happier now,” Watts said. “If you’ve never not paid a bill, you don’t know what that’s like. I’d never not paid a bill.”
BR Wholesale had previously closed in January 2013 while authorities investigated the embezzlement charges stemming from then-president James LaBelle.
The wholesale supplier hired LaBelle in June 2011 as vice president and named him president in September 2011. He was responsible for the daily business operations, while the Watts remained in semi-retirement.
LaBelle eventually pleaded guilty to the charges of spending $160,000 on personal transactions on company credit cards.
LaBelle was sentenced to five years of probation, and paid $40,000 in restitution to the court and was ordered to make restitution payments moving forward, but the blow to the business was too much for the company to overcome, Watts said.
“You just can’t recover after that, and I don’t know where the money went or how it went,” he said of the embezzlement case. “We’ve always done the same thing, the same way. ... On the other side, we do have a nice home, so at least we have a place to live.”