An Arlington-based company uses so many different names -- at least 20 -- that authorities in various states have not launched a coordinated effort to curtail what Better Business Bureau reports show are questionable sales practices.
Universal AdCom, in the 2900 block of Avenue E East, tells customers that it is affiliated with chambers of commerce and local governments and schools. Then salesmen try to sell advertising on maps, magnets and other promotional items. But the affiliations often do not exist, according to businesses owners I've interviewed who complain about the company. The company continues to draw complaints for deceptive advertising and billing practices: The BBB reports more than 300 complaints in the past three years.
This year, in the latest enforcement action, the company agreed to pay Oregon $35,000 and provide restitution for unresolved consumer complaints. At least three other states have come down hard on the company; Texas is not one of them.
Company officials did not return phone calls this week from The Watchdog.
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Two former employees shared their recollection of tactics used. One recalled the script he used: "Hi, this is John Doe calling on behalf of [whatever high school or middle school]. The reason I was calling -- we're getting ready to put together T-shirts the kids are needing for the upcoming basketball/football season. ... On the back, we're going to feature your business in big and bold."
He told me, "We're instructed to tell them we have an agreement with someone at the athletic department."
The other former employee, a top manager, says that his goal was to restore "honesty and integrity" to the company but that his bosses decided that his sales team wasn't aggressive enough. He said he was fired.
According to a check of state records, the company and its affiliates have operated under names that include: Premier Map Company, Premier Impressions, Hometown Productions, Multi Marketing Corp., D&L Map Service, Gildenblatt Enterprises, Totes to Go, Academic Assets, Scoreboard Productions and Texas High School Publications.
Other names, according to the Better Business Bureau, are: All American Sports; All States Media; American Medical Directories; Custom Sports; Fanfare Sports Marketing; Graphic Impressions; Historical Map; Mirror Map Co.; MultiMedia; Prime Time Advertising; and The Weekend Fisherman. The BBB reports that all those companies were at some point connected to the same owners.
What Fort Worth Better Business Bureau President John Riggins explained in 2009 when I first reported on the company still applies: "It's very splintered. It runs in a lot of different states at different times in different names. So it's hard to put the puzzle pieces together.
"Different attorneys general in different states have gotten involved, but there's not been any coordinated effort. I think that's one reason it works -- by virtue of name changes and location changes."
The company was founded in 1974 by Tom Gildenblatt, 68, of Southlake. His son, Jim, 46, is now president. Last year, Jim Gildenblatt was arrested in Grapevine after police found him passed out behind the wheel of his idling car. His 9-year-old daughter was in the back seat, according to the arrest report, and police said what appeared to be cocaine was laid out on the passenger seat.
He pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated with a child under 15. Given five years' probation, he will not serve jail time if he stays out of trouble. He received a $1,000 fine, had his driver's license suspended for a year, was required to take a class and now gives random urine samples. His car also has a locking device that he must blow into before he can drive.
In 2007, he was convicted of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
In January in Madison County, Iowa, the talk wasn't about covered bridges but about the Texas company that claimed false affiliation with the local chamber to sell ads on maps, according to a warning from the Madison County Chamber of Commerce to its members.
Two months later, in March, the complaints moved to Wichita Falls, where businesses were warned that salesmen were trying to sell ad space on maps that they falsely claimed were associated with the county.
That same month, in Mokena, Ill., Charlene Bergman, owner of Dave's Auto Sales & Services, received a $290 bill for 25 magnets that had her business name, she told me. The magnets were supposed to be associated with the chamber, but they weren't. She says she never ordered them. When company officials called her, she challenged them and "they hung up and they were gone, and I never heard from them again."
In June, the Burlington, Wash., Chamber of Commerce alerted members to steer clear of buying magnets. Despite what salesmen say, "the chamber is not part of this program," a warning stated. Chamber President Linda Fergusson told me that she called the company and complained. "You have to ask permission to use someone's name, and they didn't do that."
Last week, the chamber in Gilmer County, Ga., issued an alert that the company was calling area businesses and claiming association with that chamber to produce local maps.
Aside from Oregon, attorneys general in Arkansas, Illinois and Georgia have taken action. The Texas attorney general's office said no investigation is active. One possible reason: The complaints it has are under various company names.
Universal AdCom has 12; Premier Impressions has eight; Fanfare Sports Marketing has two; Hometown Productions has three.
Universal AdCom is listed as "not in good standing" on the Texas state comptroller's website. That's for companies that haven't kept up their franchise tax certification.
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The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043