“When we first did this thing, there was a lot of congratulatory stuff,” says Kevin Caldwell, referring to his role as the named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the paint companies now under Justice Department investigation for alleged price-fixing. “They’d tell me, ‘Someone had to do it,’ and all that, but then some people took personal issue with it.”
However, Caldwell, the 2000 BodyShop Business Executive of the Year, dropped his suit against the paint companies in July, citing that the direction the suit was heading wasn’t what he anticipated. “I didn’t know how [to go in that direction] without getting crucified,” Caldwell says. “I get passionate about what I do, because you try to change things and make a difference toward a positive effect, and not for the negative and criticism.”
A lot of the criticism has come from people who support the paint companies or who think the suits were jumping the gun, since the Justice Department had yet to reach a conclusion in their investigation. Many have pointed out that the paint companies might be the last people the industry should rile up because of all the benefits those companies have supplied (See the Web bonus letter to the editor, written by Jeff Hendler). And some paint jobbers have shown their displeasure, pointing out that if one shop manages to get some money from a lawsuit against a paint company (the number of suits is at 12 and counting), then every shop is going to get in line and ask for their share. And this may, as one jobber claimed, lead more paint companies to circumvent jobbers in an effort to sell paint directly to shops.
Caldwell contended that his shop was paying more each year for paint — his shop uses Akzo products — and his suit was an effort to stop it, or at the least, shed light on the situation. But critics of Caldwell’s decision contended the suit put the paint companies in a bad light no matter what the Justice Department uncovered. In other words, even if they were innocent, the paint companies’ reputations would be sullied. Caldwell refutes this. “Some of the paint guys alluded to the fact that whether they’re guilty or not, it’s a perception thing,” he says. “My counter to that was, ‘Gee, the perception of my paint bill didn’t change. It just went up.’ Then when they started hammering me, I said they should yell at the guy at the [paint] company that caused the problem in the first place. I can’t pass on that price increase every year. Nobody else can either.”
Caldwell is relieved that much of the negative response died down after he said he was withdrawing from the lawsuit. But he says some good may have come out of it. “When I released the statement and changed the direction of things, it got better,” he says. “I think we sent out a message that we got to look at this paint situation.”
Meanwhile, the five paint companies under investigation say they’re complying with the Justice Department in their investigation.