Rochester firm sues former execs

Rochester, N.H.-based BrandPartners Group Inc. has filed suit against two former executives, charging they stole proprietary information to start their own business and to land a job with a competitor.

In separate filings, the company said that Frank Beardsworth of Dover, the former executive vice president of merchandising, and D. Christopher Howe of Derry, former director of design and retail communications, conspired to take the information, using company equipment on company time, in a complaint that was moved Wednesday to U.S. District Court in Concord.

In the complaint against Beardsworth, BrandPartners said that Beardsworth was acting on an expressly stated threat made in December of 2008.

“I could start my own company or go anywhere else and bury this company,” he allegedly told a co-worker, according to the suit.

That complaint also said the company has several incriminating e-mails and documents — including one that Beardsworth allegedly wrote to BrandPartners competitor PW Campbell – that he was still making the final edits on a financial plan that he intended to send the company that would include salaries, according to the suit.

The suit cites an e-mail from July in which Beardsworth allegedly wrote: “hope to be done by eod … unfortunately I’m on BP time right now.” “BP” apparently refers to BrandPartners.

Beardsworth resigned from BrandPartners on Aug. 6 and was hired by PW Campbell on Aug 26.

Both Beardsworth and Howe also were involved in attempting to set up a business called Display Innovation LLC, which would be financed by a principal of BrandPartners’ largest supplier, according to the suit. The company was registered with the secretary of state, listing Howe as the manager. Beardsworth referred all questions to his attorney, Lee Smith, who said his client denies the allegations. Howe declined comment, and his attorney did not return phone calls by deadline.

BrandPartners, founded in 1983, creates interior retail environments for banks. The company has struggled as of late. According to financial filings, it had $16.3 million in June — about how much money it has lost over the last 3-1/2 half years.

In both its financial filings and the law suit, the company stressed that it only had a few competitors. That is why, it said in both complaints, its employment policies and code of ethics emphasize the protection of trade secrets.

The lawsuit does not state in either complaint that the defendants signed a noncompete clause.

The company hired Beardsworth in July 2000 to work in the management information systems department, until he eventually worked his way up to head the company’s most profitable business unit. He had “network administration rights,” giving him access to all of the company’s confidential information, and reported directly to the company’s chief executive, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, Beardsworth started gathering the company’s information in July 2008, and in September he allegedly said that the chief executive “has no idea how fast I could bury this company.”

In the spring of 2009, he allegedly downloaded to his portable drive BrandPartners’ financial reports, customer lists, supplier and subcontractors lists and the identity of its senior managers, the suit said.

But the information flowed both ways, according to the complaint. In June and July, he was using his BrandPartners computer to read startup documents about Display Innovations, which “was to compete directly against BrandPartners,” the complaint alleges.

In May 2009, Beardsworth and Howe allegedly traveled to Minneapolis to meet with Bill McNeelly, a principal of Acrylic Designs Associates, BrandPartners said.

McNeelly committed to investing $100,000 in Display Innovation – a deal outlined in earlier meetings with its two principals, Howe and Beardsworth – according to the suit.

The suit then alleges extensive contacts between Beardsworth and PW Campbell.

At one point, Beardsworth asked an employee to get price quotations for computers to be used at Campbell, the suit alleges.

The suit also charges that before he left the company, Beardsworth allegedly downloaded a software program to clean out his Internet files, but they were discovered in a forensic examination

The complaint against Howe echoes many of the allegations against Beardsworth. But unlike Beardsworth, BrandPartners “terminated” Howe’s employment on Aug. 13 and requested the immediate return of his laptop, his cell phone and his Sprint data card.

After Howe did not respond, BrandPartners called the Rochester police. Howe allegedly said he had personal items on the computer. By the time BrandPartners got it back, the “laptop had been wiped clean” of its operating system, the complaint said. The erasure was “so sophisticated” that the company could not recover any data, though BrandPartners alleges that it contained proprietary information that is now on Howe’s personal equipment.

The suit asks that both former employees return all data, stop making use of it, along with an unspecified amount of damages. – BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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