Wolf Pack Part I: Betrayal Of The Wolf Pack Saves Victimized Vending Business

by Mark Manney
Posted On: 1/6/2020

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One by one, they drifted into “The Corner Pocket” for the unspoken but understood monthly mid-week gathering. The seedy neighborhood bar owned two pool tables, had occasional drug deals in both the women’s and the men’s bathrooms and a well-deserved ugly reputation, but most of all it was a safe place with deep shadows for the Wolf Pack to quietly slink into.

All nine of them were spread out around two tables pulled together in the L-shaped recess at the murky watering-hole’s short end. Three pitchers of beer at a time were ordered and emptied almost as fast as the waitress could shuttle them back and forth. The warehouse manager, a customer service manager and seven route drivers guzzled, smoked, laughed, and took turns buying round after round with freshly stolen dollar bills, dollar coins or – when the alpha dog warehouse manager wanted to bark the loudest – twenties from the pizza parlor and c-store they all knew he sold stolen product to … stolen product he put on their trucks and they dropped off at his house. They were a loose-knit gang of parasites and would betray one another in a New Jersey nanosecond; that was a given, but they circled together for the same reasons sharks do: there was operator blood in the water.

The Gang of Nine, as one route driver liked to call them, were raucous and buzzing, feeding off the howling pack dynamic and a late-afternoon mixture of each one’s drug of choice. The two apprentice alcoholic juicers knocked back rapid-fire shots. A pack of thieves and addicts hellbent on getting loaded by 6 p.m. on the tax-free rewards of stolen company product and cash. When you had to be on the job by O’dark-thirty, you got a midafternoon start and ended your mid-week rip before the rest of the 9-to-5 world even thought about shifting into second gear.

THE ENTREPRENEUR

Larry Fresno built Neighborhood Vending Co. from one machine to 17 routes in 25 years through blood, sweat, toil and laughter. He possessed a warm, engaging personality that made him as popular and well-known throughout Neighborhood Vending’s customer base as he was throughout the national vending industry. Fresno was a pioneer in the multi-faceted efficiencies of DEX (the new computer accountability technology) and its synergy with cutting-edge software. He was the classic entrepreneur visionary in every sense of the word, but made the classic owner/operator’s mistake of relying on DEX and software for 100% of his cash and product accountability.

Besides his relentless business drive, Fresno was as compassionate with his employees … as he was driven to build the company he had created from nothing and built into his home-grown version of the American dream. Fresno wasn’t a “glass is half-full” optimist; he was a “the glass is overflowing can-do” entrepreneur.

Fresno intentionally nurtured, and was doing everything he could to establish a “culture of trust” with all his employees at the one-on-one level. He intended to create a unique working environment that would build morale and, hopefully, reduce the constant turnover that plagued him and every other operator in his region’s bustling economy. He even reached out a helping hand to a number of employees who were in financial trouble with a generosity that few operators felt or displayed with either their time or money.

Company cookouts, employee car washings done by management, company picnics, birthday parties, paid time off for family emergencies … Fresno did everything he could to pump benevolence into the bloodstream of Neighborhood Vending Co., and he ruled with a gentle touch. He was an unorthodox leader who managed by his velvet personality and was convinced that technology was the best path to take his company to the next level. And in most ways he was right … until the reality of the “Betrayal of the Wolf Pack” left him feeling like the unsuspecting guy who was about to be transported to another dimension, the guy Rod Sterling was talking about in the opening scene of a Twilight Zone episode.

Five months earlier, Fresno had attended a National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) seminar and sat through my PowerPoint on creating a “Culture of Controls.” He was stunned about the theft statistics I presented from a national study: 13% of American workers steal at every opportunity; in a company with weak controls another 66% will join in to plunder to some degree, if they see the 13% getting away with it; and the most worrisome statistic left: only 21% were 100% honest 100% of the time!

Fresno didn’t think that the number of dishonest employees in Neighborhood Vending Co. were anywhere near those levels. He knew he had theft and considered it part of the cost of doing business, but he told me later that he left my seminar with a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Fresno made a mental note that if he ever found himself with a serious theft problem, he would call me. When the shock wore off from what Fresno would forever more refer to as “The Phone Call,” it had become clear to him that he was being stolen from on a scale that seemed unimaginable, with at least 25% of his employees ripping him off daily.

Fresno and I had an impassioned series of lengthy phone calls when he called in a panic. After we laid out a game plan, I flew into his operation to euthanize the leaders of the Wolf Pack. When it all became clear, Fresno was past anger, resentment and shock. He was worried sick (literally; he had to see his doctor) and remained borderline sleepless over the width and the depth of the betrayal. Fresno wasn’t interested in chemotherapy … he wanted the Wolf Pack cut out like the cancer cells they were. To be honest, that type of radical surgery was my specialty. As my old Marine Corps gunny used to like to say when it came time to deal with the enemy: “Hey Diddle Diddle: right up the middle!”

DRUGS, SEX AND ROCK & ROLL

It is true that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially if she was rounding the crack cocaine addiction curve while unexpectedly finding herself not only romantically dumped, but also cheated in a drug deal gone sour by her (route driver) now ex-boyfriend. Her fury can be mathematically extrapolated from 1 to the 10th power.

Heather had met Joe at a rock concert. It wasn’t so much a whirlwind courtship as it was a series of midafternoon to early evening drug-induced parties, often with some of the younger single Wolf Pack members and their revolving-door female wolverines. They both were still in the emotional honeymoon stage of their “affair” with crack cocaine before either one realized they had slipped over the edge of recreational use into the abyss of gnawing daily addiction. Joe seemed to have a never-ending supply of dollar bills and even dollar coins (coins that Heather had never seen before) that he was willing to share with her from what he called, “The fruit of the vending money tree.” Joe had provided her a seemingly endless supply of the tiny white rocks that, once lit and deeply inhaled from the tiny brass pipe, sent them both into the gauzy euphoric haze that had become a craving that now their bodies and minds didn’t just want … but demanded.

Many times Joe had gleefully confided in Heather exactly how he and the Wolf Pack had successfully conspired to steal cash, coin and cases and cases of soda, chips, candy and especially the caffeinesaturated energy drink he would pound down one after another when he had to get up before dawn to go to work. Heather didn’t understand some of it…especially the “DEX coin tube scam;” in fact, she didn’t even know what a DEX coin tube was, but she filed it all away as Joe loved to brag about how he had figured it all out.

Months later, when Heather realized she had been suddenly and unceremoniously dumped by Joe, the now gaunt, hopelessly crack addicted and completely alone Heather was filled with an eerie sense of “Vu Ja De”… she had definitely never been here before.

When Fresno got the call from the revenge-driven Heather, at first he thought he was listening to Linda Blair from a scene from The Exorcist. Heather’s salty language and ranting guttural tone left no doubt she was past rage, and deep into the blood-red tunnel of vicious, betrayed hatred. Joe had bragged often to Heather, explaining countless details of the different scams the Wolf Pack were carefully mining to plunder Neighborhood Vending Co., and she outlined them all to Fresno.

It was obvious to him that the raving woman who called him out of the blue knew nothing about the vending industry, but everything about the mounting losses that had made no sense to him throughout most of the year. He had been so frustrated and worried by the financial losses and that no matter how many price increases he managed to cajole from his customers, he had even harbored the fear of having to sell the company he had created, nurtured and loved.

When the desperate owner realized how much the jilted girlfriend of one of his route drivers knew about the gushing red ink from his company, he offered to meet her in a local restaurant, and if she was telling the truth make it worth her time. Heather’s husky voice suddenly grew cold and unemotional flatly asking for $500 in cash. She realized she was just a bold snitch away from her next supply of tiny white rocks.

When Fresno hung up, his heart was pounding in his chest. After his first meeting with Heather, he knew she was telling the truth. That was when he called me …  and his desperation persuaded me to book an immediate flight. I couldn’t resist; it sounded like a real donnybrook! Hey diddle diddle.

THE FEEDING FRENZY

The Wolf Pack’s mass feeding frenzy of out-of-control theft confirmed the alltoo-common reality that drugs will fuel larceny like gasoline feeding a fire. Once one of them figured out that if he popped into the high schools that were the core of Neighborhood Vending Co.’s business with trays full of candy bars at a time when the kids were changing classes, he could simply sell around the machines. The technique was refined and polished, and spread from driver to driver like juicy whispered gossip. Some of them even turned the machines off during the classchanging rushes to draw even more kids thrusting dollar bills at them. Exchanging candy for dollar bills in the teeming sea of eager teenagers filled their pockets with 50 to 75 or even 100 dollar bills in a few visits on a good day. Soon the greed growth factor took over, and the candy-tray thefts were raging like a California wildfire at the height of a long drought! With the warehouse manager feeding them cases and cases of product as long as they dropped off what he selected at his house (later to be sold at a local c-store and a pizza parlor for 50¢ on the wholesale dollar), one dirty hand spread the grime to the other. The customer service manager even had a Neighborhood machine on his back porch that he kept stocked with stolen product.

Fresno had been distracted all year while he was primed to grow the business by leaps and bounds. He was getting ready to add two new large accounts, was arranging price increases to balance off the suppliers who were gouging deep into his nonexistent profit, and running it all with a razor-thin managerial staff. His GM, who was one of the most knowledgeable and connected purchasing agents in the business, was focusing more and more of his time and attention on landing bargain front-end buys that were his proven specialty. He was not much of an operations detail manager, not having come up through operations but from sales. To compound the control fracture, the launch of the new software Fresno had brought in at the beginning of the year reminded him of the Columbia disaster, leaving Neighborhood Vending Co.’s newest technology filled with more bugs then the Orkin man sees in a month of visits to a greasy spoon restaurant.

The distractions in Fresno’s life were legion and the Wolf Pack had managed to stay under the radar, hidden by constant internal sabotage leaving Fresno baffled and bewildered…until The Call.

PRACTICAL AND TACTICAL

I much preferred investigating multiple employee conspiracies than lone-wolf thieves. It’s always easier to divide and conquer than to crack a secretive dishonest loner. The practical tactical approach was tried and true: single out the weak link, jam’em up and flip’em over.

After spending two hours audio taping Heather with Fresno as the witness, she was given a c-note with a promise of four more after her information was checked out. She protested but went for it. Fresno knew from his massive losses that she was telling the truth. In spite of so many business positives in the past few years, the jigsaw pieces of his worst bottom-line in a decade fit together. He would give Heather the other four c-notes; the detail of her information was amazing for a 20-something airhead who knew nothing about the industry. The real intent was to keep her quiet until I was finished dealing with the Wolf Pack. She was warned by me: one peep from her and she could kiss the four c-notes goodbye.

Fresno was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. He knew the nightmare he found himself in with nine dishonest employees working together was the most serious threat to his business and legacy to his wife and son of all he had faced in 25 years of building his company from nothing. He also knew there was no way he could lose all nine of them at once without losing business … a lot of business. He wanted the three ringleaders made examples of; the cash and product bleeding stopped; and some time bought to find, train and replace one-fourth of his route drivers.

Fresno and I stayed sequestered in my hotel room, pounding out a case jacket to document all we knew, which was 99% Heather hearsay, but reinforced with a few pre- and post-machine audits at my direction just before I arrived. The pre- and post- audits proved only misdemeanor cash theft on one out of the nine; but it was my “Holy Grail” evidence – the only real evidence we had besides the bulging-eyed ranting bitterness of a tattooed, pierced, jilted crackhead.

Then Fresno and I visited with the police to take the local jurisdiction’s pulse. We found it barely beating. The detective division supervisor was not interested in hearsay from anyone, and wouldn’t even assign one of his men to work with me and Fresno. Everyone at the police station was getting ready for the Christmas break, and he said they were already overwhelmed with more serious cases. Shrugged shoulders and bored gazes were all we got. The Neighborhood Vending Co. owner and I, the loss prevention subject-matter expert, were on our own.

To be honest, considering the plan I had in mind, I preferred it that way. How
ever, I did get a commitment they would send a uniformed officer to give criminal trespass warnings to any employees we either terminated or filed charges against. That tactic fit well into my charge up the Wolf Pack’s middle.

Fresno and I worked up a plan to euthanize three of the alpha dogs of the Wolf Pack, while subduing the rest and buying some time to completely revamp, rejuvenate, and reclaim the bottom line, the future, and the legacy of the Neighborhood Vending Company Larry Fresno had planned on leaving to his young son.

I had a hard time sleeping the night, before the first confrontation and ambush of the dirty CSM. As usual, I was filled with an edgy anticipation and a seething indignation against these parasites and leeches whose greed and wanton betrayal was threatening to destroy a good man’s life’s work. This was not my first rodeo with Wolf Packs.

This was the type of job that made the cramped, endless plane flights and the lonely hotel existence all worth it. I knew two of the Wolf Pack were gang members, and at least one packed a hidden .38 snubnosed revolver (according to Heather); and they all swaggered or ditty bopped with a cocky insolence born of the streets.

I was fascinated by the DEX coin tube scam and the selling of candy bars in trays on the various middle and high school campuses during class changes. It was an affluent area in Florida. I felt the insight into both could be helpful with other clients, and I was right.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, they all looked and acted tough, yada, yada, yada. However, I was old enough to be their father and experienced enough to be their worst nightmare. As far as the snubbie packer, he supposedly kept it on his right ankle. That fore knowledge could be invaluable, if my confrontation with him went south –and I intended to make it direct and brutal; any sudden moves to his right ankle would bring lightning and thunder.

In the next two days, I intended to find out exactly how tough the leaders of the Wolf Pack really were … not how tough they thought they were.

To Be Continued… In the next issue: Jam’em Up and Flip’em Over.


MARK MANNEY was NAMA's security and loss prevention know ledge source partner from 2004 to 2010. He has been featured in leading industry publications over the years, including VENDING TIMES and Sunbelt Vending & OCS. At the suggestion of Sunbelt's publisher, the late Ben Ginsberg, Manney authored this series of what are, in effect, detective stories based on his real-life experiences in working with vending and foodservice operations.