Part one of our story told the tale of how agency owner Karen Schroedermeier discovered that one of her agents had diverted $250,000 worth of bookings to another agency as an independent contractor, and how after a weekend of soul-searching decided to press charges. On Feb. 22, “the above-mentioned Defendant pleaded guilty to Grand Theft,” say the court papers from the Minnehaha County Office of the State’s Attorney. She was released on bail and is awaiting sentencing in May. Here’s part two of the story; stay tuned for part three.
Karen Schroedermeier’s life changed a little on the day she came upon a Facebook post saying how much a certain independent contractor liked working for a certain host agency (whose lawyer has advised us not use its name, as this "could cause real and significant harm to his reputation in the travel community").
There was just one problem: it was written by Melissa Kaye Sutton, a full-time employee of Karen Schroedermeier’s South Dakota travel agency.
It was late on a Friday afternoon in 2015, Schroedermeier recalls, the weekend before Thanksgiving, and Sutton was away on vacation. So Schroedermeier spent the ensuing weekend going through Sutton’s emails and Facebook posts, finding “all the documentation, emails to clients saying she was opening her own business, and do they want to be her first customers—and situations where she canceled a booking and rebooked it under the new company. The first thing Monday morning I called the police and reported it."
That started a chain of events that led to hours of work that distracted her from her own business, but Schroedermeier is glad she made the effort. And indeed, a number of agents with whom TMR has spoken since this story first appeared last week applauded her for being one of the first, if not the very first, travel agency owner to press charges against an employee for theft of services in a case like this.
In all, says Schroedermeier, Sutton diverted bookings from 39 clients, worth about $250,000, and rebooked them through Travel Troops, causing All About Travel to lose $25,000 in commissions, between July and September of 2015.
Sutton has pleaded guilty to one felony count and is awaiting sentencing; Schumacher has not been charged with any crime and declined to comment for this story.
A tale of two sides
Bonnie Lee, CEO of Travel Quest in Albertville, MN, said the same thing happened to her years ago—and she still regrets not following through. But with the clarity of hindsight, she sees the other side of the story as well.
“I totally feel the pain of an in-house agent who has a great book of business and is very good at her job and would like to go out and start her own business. The waters get so muddy about which client is whose,” Lee said. “But I also feel the pain of the agency owner, who is paying her salary, who in actuality helped to make the agent great. I live in both worlds.”
Now, when Lee senses that urge for independence coming upon one of her agents, “I tell them it’s great that you are doing so well, but remember you have all your great clients because of us,” she said. “All those jobs that were the job of the owner will become your jobs if you start your own business. It will be your job to make the phone ring, to put ads together and pay for them, to pay for the technology, to handle the social media, to make up the stationery and pay for the postage. I feel like if I help them to understand that, then they can understand the value of what their boss and their agency brought to their relationship.
“At the end of the day when you say you are an independent agent, the question I always would ask myself is, ‘Did I build my business or did I possibly pull business from someone who helped me get established? Is it ethical for me to do this?’ ”
Still, “I see how the waters can get muddied, but I don’t see how they can make it OK in their mind,” she said. “Maybe it’s in their perception of the world or a life situation they find themselves in.”
But the take-away from this tale should be to have a conversation with your employer and see if you can negotiate something that works for both sides.
“It’s hard for women to say, ‘I think I am worth more than you are paying me.’ But if you gather your stats—how many people have called you directly, what’s your close ratio, how much have you brought in. And then the owner has to put her hat on that says not, ‘I made you what you are and you are being ungrateful, but try listening to what the agent brought to you, and see if you can make this work. You have to put on your business hat, not your personal hat, and sit down and have a conversation. What is the driving force here and can you come to an agreement? And even if not, at least you will get that closure.”
In Lee’s case, she said, she did call the local law enforcement and open a case. “I knew it was stealing, but it was a couple of thousand bucks in commission, and I said in my head it will take this much time and this much energy, and I just decided to forget it and move forward.”
Schroedermeier, meanwhile, has spent hours scouring the records and pulling together the information for the police, explaining the details of ARC numbers and commission payments to the detectives, testifying before the Grand Jury, going to trial, checking whether the loss is covered by E&O insurance (it is not), and now, preparing her final statement to deliver at the sentencing hearing in May. In return she will receive restitution of $25,271.43 at $8,000 down and $350 a month over the next five years. And the satisfaction of knowing that she took what she feels to be the right step in going public with what she feels is a growing issue in the travel industry.