Mr. Belvedere goes to court

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When Marianne Zack DiGrande began working for Belvedere Construction Inc. in 1970, she was in awe of Maurice Lezell, owner of the home-improvement company and better known as Mr. Belvedere.

She liked that her boss was generous, hardworking and tough, much like she was. During the 26 years that the single mom worked for him — doing everything from ordering furniture and answering phones to reviewing paperwork and handling publicity — her admiration grew into fierce loyalty.

DiGrande saw herself as a buffer between Lezell and any problems that arose at Belvedere Construction, 18610 W. Eight Mile Road, Southfield.

“Any call that would upset Lezell, I was to get it,” says DiGrande, 60. “He was not to be embarrassed or humiliated in any way.”

When the Better Business Bureau called with a customer complaint, she took care of it. If a salesman failed to complete the necessary paperwork for a gutter, roof or other home-improvement job, DiGrande demanded that he do so.

But a favorite task was handling Lezell’s publicity. She claims to have helped the master pitchman achieve camp-hero status in Detroit during the 1970s with his no-frills television ads. In a suit and tie, Lezell sat behind a desk coaxing TV viewers to dial Tyler-8-7100 for their home-improvement needs.

“Have no fear with Belvedere,” he assured in a flat, unrehearsed tone. Or, “You’ll look at it, you’ll love it, and you’ll take your time paying for it.”

DiGrande says, “Sometimes we wrote them together.”

Each ad concluded, and still does, with Lezell asserting, “We do good work!” That proclamation became his most popular pitch, with the public sporting kitschy T-shirts bearing Lezell’s mug and slogan. The ads made Mr. Belvedere a local celebrity. Fans asked him for autographs. He inspired lookalike contests.

“People stopped to talk to him all the time,” says DiGrande.

She also helped Lezell promote local charities. And when business was down, she made it her job to lift Lezell’s spirits. He regularly spoke to students about how he rose from humble beginnings as the son of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants to build a multimillion-dollar business.

“Sometimes I would call and find somewhere for him to talk when business was slow,” says DiGrande.

So why, after faithfully serving Lezell for more than a quarter-century, has DiGrande become his worst nightmare?

The answer is contained in the lawsuit DiGrande filed in Oakland County Circuit Court against Lezell and Belvedere Construction in 1999. (Judge Alice L. Gilbert dismissed Lezell as a defendant from the case earlier this year. When a corporation is sued, individuals cannot be held liable without just cause; Gilbert ruled there was no cause for Lezell to be sued as an individual.)

Before their bitter split six years ago, DiGrande says, her chief duty was to act as Lezell’s “eyes and ears.” If she suspected an employee of stealing from the company or cheating a customer, she was to report it to Lezell. Though proud to be entrusted with this authority, she says that it was sometimes frustrating, since Lezell would not always heed her warnings.

In 1995, for example, she claims, she and others told him that the credit manager was stealing from the company. Lezell ignored them until after the credit manager had quit and absconded with $140,000.

“He would say, ‘Marianne’s a bitch, but she’s right 99 percent of the time,’” says DiGrande.

She also was to ensure that the sales staff treated customers in accordance with all laws that regulate the home-improvement industry.

“Lezell told me to act as if I were the customer’s attorney,” says DiGrande.

If the paperwork didn’t comply with the law, she ordered the salesmen to fix it. And if they refused, she went to Lezell, she says.

In 1996, her lawsuit alleges, she discovered that the sales staff was gouging customers, specifically elderly African-Americans in Detroit, by charging them five to 10 times more than they should have. DiGrande claims she complained to Lezell, but he wouldn’t listen.

“He always portrayed himself as befuddled,” says DiGrande. “He would say, ‘What you’re saying can’t be true.’”

This is when the boss and his loyal deputy parted ways. In her lawsuit, DiGrande claims that Lezell admitted that he had “larcenous” salesmen, but that he needed them. So he fired her.

Lezell testified that DiGrande quit.

Lezell’s attorney, Gordon Gold, says DiGrande is a disgruntled worker who has a history of blaming employers when jobs don’t work out. He cites DiGrande’s testimony in which she claims to have quit working for several dentists because they wanted her to party after-hours with laughing gas. Another employer fired her because “she was too pretty and his wife was jealous,” says Gold. She also testified that she quit a job because her boss wanted her to sleep with his clients.

“Every employer she left, she accused them of wrongdoing,” says Gold, who insists that neither Lezell nor his sales staff gouged customers or violated the law. In fact, Lezell’s services were affordable to clients who otherwise could not have had their homes repaired, he says.

“He really thinks he is doing a service,” Gold says of the 80-year-old Lezell, who cited health problems in declining to be interviewed for this story. “He does work in the inner city when others won’t go there.”

Court papers indicate that about 50 percent of Belvedere customers are Detroit residents; that figure increases to about 75 percent in winter months, which is the slow season in construction.

Gold says that DiGrande’s accusations are ludicrous because it was she who was responsible for making sure the sales staff complied with the law.

But did Lezell have the final say on questionable deals that DiGrande brought to his attention? “Generally, I don’t think it ever went to him,” says Gold. “He’s a classic salesman. He’s not a numbers or paperwork guy.”

But in another lawsuit, Lezell once testified that when “things got tight” his staff came to him. “I have the final say on the whole operation,” he testified.

Complicating the litigation is that DiGrande suffers from what she says is a learning disability that makes it impossible for her to remember when events occurred. Additionally, she was in a motorcycle accident after she sued; that may also have affected her memory.

The litigation comes down to two issues: The first revolves around a complicated arrangement between Belvedere and the banks that provided loans to his customers. The second focuses on how the sales staff determined the price of a remodeling job.

DiGrande’s attorney, Jeff Ellison, argues that customers incurred a finance charge that was not disclosed, which is a violation of federal and state laws. He says the sales staff’s commission was boosted by these deals, which was an incentive to encourage gouging.

Gold argues that customers did not incur additional costs and, therefore, the fees did not have to be disclosed.

For DiGrande to prove that she was wrongfully discharged she must prove that Belevdere acted illegally, that she objected and as a consequence was fired in retaliation for not participating in the scheme.

A jury will decide whether DiGrande is a disgruntled employee or if Lezell is covering up for his sales staff’s illegal activities. The case is scheduled for trial next month.

The pitchman

Maurice Lezell was born in Kentucky in 1921. His parents moved to Detroit when their son was about 4. His dad ran his own grocery store. Lezell graduated from Central High School, then served three years in the Coast Guard during World War II. After attending Wayne State University for about one year, Lezell got a job selling storm windows. He discovered that he was a natural salesman and he opened his own business, which he ran out of his home. In 1948, he established Belvedere Construction Inc. The original offices were located on Livernois.

Lezell named his company after a popular movie of the time called Mr. Belvedere Goes to College and a street in Detroit called Belvedere.

“I just thought it sounded nice as a name,” says Lezell in a brief bio he wrote for the book Motor City Memoirs. Lezell, like his salesmen, went door-to-door making his pitch. When a remodeling job was sold, Lezell subcontracted the work to a construction crew.

He doesn’t claim to be a handyman. What he is good at is promoting his company. He began writing his own radio spots around 1955. But when the radio station increased his rates, he turned to TV.

He saturated the airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s and became known as “Mr. Belvedere.” In those days, he reportedly spent $750,000 a year on advertising.

“Our advertising budget was overwhelming — we were one of the biggest local advertisers in Detroit at the time,” he says in Motor City Memoirs. Originally, his company was made up of three salesmen and himself. As business boomed with the popular ads, he hired more staff. His straightforward approach resonated with the pubic.

“The truth is the truth,” he would say to TV viewers. “There’s no one that gets more recommendations and old customers than Belvedere. Why? Is it my good looks? No! It’s only because we do good work. Trust me! Your neighbors do.”

About 50 percent of his customers are repeat business, he says.

He was well-rewarded for his marketing prowess. Lezell, who married twice and raised three daughters, reportedly had a vacation villa in Jamaica and a 90-acre farm in Clarkston, along with his Bloomfield Hills home.

By his side during his rise was Marianne DiGrande.

Girl Friday

When Lezell hired DiGrande in 1970, Belvedere Construction was still at the Livernois offices. At the time, there were about 18 salesmen on staff. The phone rang constantly, she says. “Lezell’s first request was never to let the phone ring more than twice. And there were phones everywhere,” recalls DiGrande. But her main task, when initially hired, was to reschedule canceled appointments with potential customers.

“It was called rehash,” says DiGrande.

But within weeks, Lezell assigned her additional job duties, mostly involving publicity, which suited DiGrande.

“I’m a very forceful person and Lezell was forceful,” she says. “We were good together because I wasn’t afraid of him or afraid to protect him.”

She says she convinced him to reject inferior ads. He would pitch ideas and she nixed some of them. “Ones that were real bad didn’t show,” she says. She says she co-wrote some ads with Lezell (she declined to say which ones) and appeared in a commercial as a receptionist.

Even attorney Gold concedes that DiGrande “did a good job” handling publicity. “No question about it.”

This involved finding worthy causes to which the company could lend its name. DiGrande says that Lezell believed in charity work and gave up much of his time to it. This is evident from the many photos, certificates and letters of gratitude plastered on the walls of the company’s Southfield office from groups such as The March of Dimes, Boys Club of America and the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

DiGrande describes herself as “the person behind the big person who did all the work and gave him all the credit.”

During the recession in the 1980s, business declined. Lezell’s sales staff was cut back, as well as his advertising.

“It killed him to cut advertising,” says DiGrande. “When your ego is built on being Mr. Belvedere, you do good work, what’s going to keep people remembering you?”

The 1990s were not much better. Most advertising was done through the yellow pages. New Michiganders had never heard of Mr. Belvedere. People who had grown up watching his TV ads had forgotten about him — until Lezell got a lot of publicity for leading the charge to save the Michigan State Fair.

In 1991, Gov. John Engler started slashing the fair budget. To make up for the loss, attendance had to increase by half. It was DiGrande’s job to get corporate sponsors to help promote the fair and contribute to the publicity campaign Lezell cooked up.

He reportedly donated $6,000 of his own money and came up with a trademark no-nonsense slogan: “Save the Michigan State Fair. Go there.”

A bitter end

The mid-1990s were a troubling time for Belvedere Construction. Lezell suffered a heart attack in 1996. That same year, he discovered that an employee had embezzled from the company. He cut staff and TV advertising, running ads only in the yellow pages.

Other trouble was brewing too, according to DiGrande’s suit, involving the sales staff. Her complaint alleges that she warned Lezell for months that the sales staff was gouging customers — especially elderly blacks — but he ignored her.

The sales staff cursed and threatened DiGrande for complaining to Lezell and not approving their paperwork, according to her lawsuit.

Each winter, when business was slow, Lezell regularly laid off staff, including DiGrande, who collected unemployment benefits. However, if the benefits were less than her regular pay, Lezell made up the difference, according to court records.

In November 1996, when she was laid off for the winter, she attempted to collect unemployment benefits. But she was denied since she had not worked enough since her last furlough. She met with Lezell to discuss her employment. At the meeting, she alleges that Lezell admitted to her that he had “larcenous” salesmen and that they had told him that they would quit unless he kept her from scrutinizing their work, according to her lawsuit. He offered her a position supervising telemarketing staff. DiGrande rejected the position because any leads developed by telemarketers would be given to the allegedly “larcenous” sales staff, thereby involving her in the illegal enterprise she sought to end, her lawsuit states.

Lezell fired her, she says.

According to Lezzel, DiGrande quit. When she was denied unemployment benefits, there wasn’t much work to offer her since business was slow and the advertising budget had been cut. Lezell said that the only position available was supervising the telemarketers. He advised her at the November 1996 meeting that she would make as much in commissions as her regular salary — an astonishingly meager $425 per week.

DiGrande refused this work, left the office and never returned, Lezell testified. She applied for workman’s compensation benefits, alleging that she had suffered mental anguish from work-related stress. In 1998, she was awarded $70,000. The next year, she sued Belvedere for wrongful discharge,

Legal wrangling

Marianne DiGrande sits on the sofa in the Southfield apartment where she spends most days. She has not worked since her employment with Belvedere ended six years ago. She says she suffers from depression, anxiety and other ailments.

“You can’t imagine how devastated I was when he told me that he knew about the larcenous salesmen. I believed in him,” she says.

She easily recalls details of her time at Belvedere, but exact dates elude her. She says that a “learning disability” prevents her from measuring elapsed time. This makes it difficult for her to say when she first complained to Lezell about gouging. DiGrande can’t say whether it was months or years before she left the firm, though her lawsuit claims it was months. Also, she was in a motorcycle accident in 2001, which may also have damaged her memory.

DiGrande ticks off accusations that are not alleged in her lawsuit. She doesn’t seem to fully understand that the heart of her case is Belvedere’s alleged failure to disclose a finance charge to customers.

According to court records, this is how it worked:

Customers who could not pay cash for remodeling jobs obtained bank loans through Belvedere. The bank paid the company and the customer paid the bank in monthly installments at an annual interest rate of 13 percent. But the banks retained between 10 percent and 25 percent on each loan, which is called a “clip.” The size of the clip varied depending on the customer’s credit rating. The higher the risk, the higher the clip. The clips were pooled into a single account. If a customer failed to make three monthly payments, the bank used the clip reserve to pay off the entire loan, plus interest and late fees.

DiGrande’s lawsuit alleges that the sales staff passed over cash customers to target those who needed loans to remodel their homes, and that the majority of those customers were elderly African-Americans in Detroit. According to the sales staff’s testimony, if a customer paid Belvedere cash, the salesman priced the job by doubling the cost for labor and materials and adding his 10 percent commission fee. But if a customer needed a loan through Belvedere, the salesman priced the job by tripling the cost of labor and materials and adding his 10 percent commission. Ellison argues that customers who needed loans ultimately paid more than cash customers, which boosted the salesperson’s commission.

“It was an incentive for the sales staff to go after finance deals,” says Ellison. DiGrande’s lawsuit alleges that “by mandating substantially less favorable terms and conditions to elderly, African-American persons than were extended to other homeowners,” Belvedere violated state civil rights laws.

Ellison also says that to cover the clip, Belvedere charged credit customers more for remodeling jobs than cash customers. Therefore, the clip is a finance charge and the company is legally obligated to disclose it, he says.

“It was a cost only passed on to credit customers,” says Ellison.

Gold says the clip did not have to be disclosed because it is not a finance charge, but a financial arrangement between Belvedere and the banks. He adds that though the sales staff estimated remodeling jobs by doubling costs for cash customers and tripling costs for those who needed financing, customers never paid these prices.

“It was just a half-cocked way to come up with an initial price,” he says. Gold says Belvedere did not encourage financing that involved clips because the company lost money on many of these deals.

In fact, Belvedere sued Huntington Bank in 2000 over the clip arrangement. (It had a similar arrangement with other banks, but only sued Huntington.) The lawsuit alleged that Huntington Bank accepted high-risk credit customers that it should not have approved. A resulting plethora of defaults depleted the clip reserve.

A 1993 agreement between Huntington and Belvedere required Lezell to replenish the clip reserve if depleted. It also was up to him to collect payments from customers who defaulted on bank loans. Court records state that Huntington Bank did business with Belvedere because the home-improvement company had a large number of black customers. By approving loans for this population, the bank met federal requirements to serve minorities.

Huntington Bank countersued Belvedere, accusing Lezell of reneging on his agreement to replenish the depleted clip reserve. That case settled for an undisclosed sum last year.

Ultimately, the clip deal was a losing proposition for Belvedere, says Gold.

“The company preferred cash deals because it made more money on them,” he says.

John Lawrence, an attorney at the Detroit law firm, Dickinson Wright, PLLC, which specializes in consumer finance law, says it is not unusual for a lender to require a clip to protect itself. But it sometimes leads to litigation over whether it should be disclosed.

“The disclosure issue is a common problem in these kinds of matters,” he says. “And the reason why it is one of the most litigated issues is the rules governing disclosure are very complicated.”

Lawrence says to comply with the law, the lender must correctly distinguish each charge as a finance fee or part of the principal balance. Most disputes are over the characterization of such the charges.

Lawrence says he could not render an opinion on DiGrande’s case without reviewing the entire case in detail.

Joe Steenbeke, general manger of Sears home improvement products, says the prices his company charges don’t take into account how a customer will pay.

Mat Vivona of Troy-based Father and Son construction says a customer’s payment method has no effect on job estimates. “I could care less if it’s cash or financed,” says Vivona. “The estimate is the same price and so is the contract.”

Clean record

“To this day, Mr. Belvedere is a clean guy with a clean record,” says DiGrande. But she intends to change all that with her lawsuit. “He is illegally hurting people by overcharging them … It’s criminal.”

Gold fears that even if his client prevails in court his name will be tarnished by the ensuing publicity.

Belvedere does have a solid reputation in the community, not only because of his charity work but because he has managed to keep the vast majority of his customers satisfied.

Belvedere has a good record with the Detroit Better Business Bureau, says spokesman Dave Cunningham. He says companies are rated by the number of complaints they receive and how they resolve them. (Lezell served on the BBB’s board from 1973 to 1999, but Cunningham says that board members do not influence how companies are rated.)

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office has received only five complaints against Belvedere since 1996. On average the company does about 500 remodeling jobs annually, according to court records. The state Consumer and Industry Department, which also monitors the home-improvement industry, had no record of complaints against Belvedere.

Even ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), a Detroit-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the poor regarding predatory lending practices and other issues, has no complaints about Belvedere, says executive director Richard Winslow.

But it’s not likely that a customer would complain about the allegations DiGrande is making. “They wouldn’t know that a finance charge has not been disclosed to them because it has not been disclosed,” says Ellison.

He says that if Belvedere customers had known about the allegedly improper finance charges, they may not have done business with the company.

Lawrence says that legal disputes over disclosure issues often turn into class action lawsuits.

Does Ellison intend to sue Belvedere on behalf of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of customers who paid to have their homes remodeled with Belvedere financing?

Ellison won’t say.

Relief pitcher

On the walls of Belvedere’s Southfield offices hang photos of a young, animated Lezell. He’s got long, bushy sideburns. He stands with celebrities such as Jerry Lewis and Dick Purtan. The framed images, along with awards and certificates, chronicle the king pitchman’s life.

But Lezell is winding down. He rarely comes to the two-story office building, which has seen better days. The second floor, once bustling with telemarketers, is leased to other businesses. Some 1970s decor — brown-and-cream shag carpeting — persists.

Pete DiVito, 31, plans to rejuvenate Belvedere Construction. DiVito began working for Belvedere in 1997 as the finance manager. About two years later he and Lezell formed Belvedere Construction LLC, which DiVito co-owns.

“I essentially bought the company from him in 1999,” says DiVito, who now runs day-to-day operations. He would not comment on the exact financial arrangement between Lezell and him. But court records indicate that DiVito owns 49 percent of the new company and Lezell owns 51 percent.

Any new business belongs to the new company and the old — including DiGrande’s lawsuit — stays with Lezell. DiVito would not comment on the case, but he did say that he discontinued “clip” financed deals three years ago. Belvedere still offers financing, but the customer works directly with the bank, which handles all the paperwork, says DiVito. “We’re doing good,” says DiVito. “We are back on TV. Sometimes we use the old commercials.”

The new company has 20 employees. “The salesman fluctuate between six and 10 salesmen depending on the time of year,” says DiVito.

Asked what he envisions for Belvedere Construction, the new pitchman says, “To be here another 50 or 60 years.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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