Exclusive: Employees claim hostile workplace led to walkout, short closure of Bondurant school

Exclusive: Employees claim hostile workplace led to walkout, short closure of Bondurant school

Former employees claimed the culture allowed for belittlement, racism and unequal treatment

A mass walkout by employees who claimed they had experienced a hostile work environment and feared they would not be paid forced the brief closure last month of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, one of the premier driving schools in the nation.

In multiple interviews, former high-level employees of the school said they experienced a culture rife with belittlement, racism and unequal treatment, as well as financial mismanagement.

All of the accusations were leveled at Patricia Bondurant, the school’s president and chief executive officer. She has moved to a consulting role after the facility filed for Chapter 11 in October, but retained 51 percent ownership control. Her husband, Bob, owns the other 49 percent.

“This truly was a very hostile, horrible environment,” Jason Bondurant said in an exclusive interview with the ClassicCars.com Journal. Bondurant, the biological son of 63-year-old Patricia “Pat” Bondurant and adopted son of the school’s namesake, famed racing driver Bob Bondurant, ran the day-to-day business of the school.

In a statement, Pat Bondurant said she and Bob deny claims made by former employees.

“We vehemently deny the allegations that have been made by a handful of former employees about how the school was being managed,” the statement read. “This entire matter has broken Bob’s heart. We’re working through the proper legal channels to make the best choices for the long-term health and success of the school. We’re confident that once all of the legal matters are behind us and the school emerges from the restructuring, the truth will be told through the proper channels.”

Bob and Pat Bondurant | Facebook photo

Bob and Pat Bondurant | Facebook photo

Bob Bondurant, 85, founded the school in California 50 years ago. The current Chandler, Arizona campus — the largest purpose-built driving instruction facility in the world — was opened in 1990. Over the years, it had partnered with Ford, Roush and General Motors. It is currently the primary training school for Dodge SRT vehicles, along with multiple government agencies.

Pat Bondurant started at the school in 2010, two months after she married Bob. She was given the controlling 51 percent stake in the school around that time and named president. She became CEO in 2017.

Pay questions

The school was closed for a short time following the November 12 walkout, which was fueled in part by rumors that employees may not be paid for their work. Jason Bondurant said he and former financial controller Lavida Arvizu were instructed by Pat Bondurant not to tell employees the school was running out of funds as she mulled filing for Chapter 7, which would have immediately shut down operations.

“I was pleading with Pat and the bankruptcy attorney to agree upon a close date so we could ensure that employees would be paid in full before the doors closed,” Arvizu wrote in an email. “Pat did not want to inform students of the 16th (of November) as she referred to as the ‘drop dead date’ which is when we would possibly shut the doors.”

This sign was taped to the doors at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving on November 12. We blocked out the phone number on the sign, which was Pat Bondurant's personal cell phone. | Carter Nacke photo

This sign was taped to the doors at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving on November 12. We blocked out the phone number on the sign, which was Pat Bondurant’s personal cell phone. | Carter Nacke photo

The pair went against Pat Bondurant’s wishes, informed employees and walked off the job. Others followed suit, which forced the brief closure.

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“Many employees said that without Jason and I they couldn’t trust that she would get them paid,” Arvizu wrote.

Some have since been offered their jobs back, as the school is continuing to run during its Chapter 11 restructuring.

The school’s newly hired chief restructuring officer, Timothy Shaffer, said employees were always paid.

“In going back through the records, Bondurant never missed a payroll. They were never late on a payroll,” he said, adding that he was unsure what the conversations were prior to his arrival or what the employees had heard.

Had workers not been paid, it could have been a “nightmare” in the ongoing bankruptcy case.

“If you decide, as an owner of a business, that you’re going to — especially in a bankruptcy — decide not to pay employees, not only do you have some pretty severe liabilities triggered by the state and employee protection labor laws, but you also trigger some pretty draconian outcomes from the bankruptcy code and bankruptcy law,” Shaffer said.

Financial problems

At the heart of the pay matter was the school’s ongoing financial decline. The former employees said red flags began popping up years ago, but measures were not made to stop the company from running into trouble.

“I really tried to take a stab at what I thought was a huge problem, especially on the financial side of the company,” Jason Bondurant said. “No matter how we tried to point out errors and spinning problems and lack of budget and so on, it was a lack of attention, a lack of care.”

Arvizu wrote that she asked Pat Bondurant numerous times to rein in spending as early as 2016.

“The summer of 2016 I had made statements in a meeting that the company was approaching bankruptcy, that we should lay people off and restructure,” she wrote. “We got down to less than $80,000 in the bank account that summer because she refused to make adjustments.”

Former staffers said Pat Bondurant's spending on lavish events contributed to the school's financial troubles. | Facebook photo

Former staffers said Pat Bondurant’s spending on lavish events contributed to the school’s financial troubles. | Facebook photo

In court documents filed by Bondurant’s bankruptcy attorneys and signed by Pat Bondurant, the school said multiple factors contributed to its bankruptcy filing, none of which had to do with her personally.

The primary reason cited in the filing was the school’s inability to pay September’s rent without “without jeopardizing its ability to pay ongoing operational expenses and payroll.” There was concern officials could use the unpaid rent as a reason to lock the school out, which would have obviously disrupted operations.

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Other bankruptcy factors included an abruptly canceled contract with the U.S. Department of Defense and Dodge’s decision to remove the Viper training cars from the school.

Belittling comments

Money was not the only concern that worried former employees. Each person interviewed by ClassicCars.com Journal said they had direct experience with Pat Bondurant belittling or insulting employees, though it was sometimes done behind their backs or through text messages.

“She was very loose and [indiscreet] of talking about other employees to others,” Jason Bondurant said.

Multiple employees said Pat Bondurant made derogatory comments about people who lived in certain Phoenix suburbs.

“She said to me that we should stop hiring people from Chandler or Gilbert,” Arvizu wrote. “Her feeling was that was why we were attracting lower-caliber people… I asked what’s wrong with Gilbert and she said that is where the poor people live. I actually live in Gilbert so I let her know. She changed the subject.”

Heidi Johnson, another former employee who worked the front desk, wrote in an email that Pat Bondurant told her “only poor people live in Chandler and Gilbert.” Like Arvizu, Johnson also lives in one of those cities.

“She was very demanding, degrading and abrupt when she spoke to us,” Johnson wrote.

Every employee we interviewed said they had no problems with Bob Bondurant. | Facebook photo

Every employee we interviewed said they had no problems with Bob Bondurant. | Facebook photo

Jason Bondurant said he had a similar discussion with his mother. He recalled her asking why the school was not seeking out hires from other parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, as they are “white, educated and they have money and they come from money.”

Another former employee, Mark Lathrop, who was the school’s director of marketing, said Pat Bondurant would often target other employees who drew her ire.

“It would switch to whoever was on her bad side at the moment,” he wrote in an email.

Jason Bondurant said such behavior was “common place” and he asked Pat Bondurant to stop on multiple occasions.

“I just said, ‘Mom, gosh, just please stop riling it up. There’s no need to go there. If you have a problem with somebody, that what we have HR for.’”

Racist remarks

Though it happened with less frequency, multiple former employees said they heard Pat Bondurant use racist language — sometimes directed at staff members or students.

Two years ago, on the advice of an external human relations company, Jason Bondurant said he sent his mother home for two weeks after a worker overheard her making racist comments. He said she appeared to avoid such language for a few weeks but made another remark after attending President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration.

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“This was said in a group of all my managers in a managers’ meeting: When she got back from Washington, D.C. for Trump’s inauguration, she came back and said, ‘Oh my god, when President Obama was elected all the black people must have followed him there because it was like going through Planet of the Apes,” Jason Bondurant recalled.

Tim Rose, a former instructor who served as the school’s general manager for a time, said he was in the meeting and also heard the comment.

Jason Bondurant (right) poses with his parents and Tim Rose (second from right) the day Rose was named general manager. | Facebook photo

Jason Bondurant (right) poses with his parents and Tim Rose (second from right) the day Rose was named general manager. | Facebook photo

Jason Bondurant said he pulled his mother into a separate room to admonish her.

He also asked Pat Bondurant to remove a cardboard standup of the president from the school’s conference room after employees complained.

“It created a very nasty conflict with my staff, especially those that didn’t share the same views,” he said.

Other former employees also claimed Pat Bondurant used racially insensitive language on school property.

“I heard her complaining about a filming on property that she couldn’t believe they put a Mexican on camera,” Arvizu wrote. “I was totally offended and if I could hear her I’m sure people in the lobby heard her as well.”

“She made a comment about a videographer we had used that was of Middle Eastern/Indian descent — she called him ‘our little Bollywood star,’” Lathrop wrote.

Unequal treatment

The employees also said that Pat Bondurant treated female workers differently from their male counterparts, including potential new hires.

“She was very dismissive to me and other women in the office,” Arvizu wrote. “The male employees would get hugs and smiles and she was much nicer to the men.”

For her part, Johnson said she overheard Pat Bondurant say that staffers should tell female students to not dress like prostitutes.

Former employees said they overheard Pat Bondurant making negative comments about both workers and students. | Facebook photo

Former employees said they overheard Pat Bondurant making negative comments about both workers and students. | Facebook photo

Jason Bondurant said his mother would eliminate prospective female hires based on their looks.

“I wasn’t allowed to hire what she felt were too attractive of women,” he said, adding that such a scenario occurred at least three times.

Leadership fight

A contributing factor to the walkout was Pat Bondurant’s refusal to accept an employee petition that called for her to step down — but keep ownership — and allow Jason Bondurant to oversee the entire school.

Twenty-two of the school’s 33 employees signed the document.

“We handed Pat the petition and said that everyone is frustrated and upset, the best chance we have for this company is to keep everyone happy and focused on the job at hand especially with the daunting task we are facing,” Jason Bondurant said in an email.

“Pat threw the petition at me and said ‘[Expletive] you’ and then quickly got up from her chair to leave.”

The petition signed by employees and given to Pat Bondurant is shown. The employees' names were blurred to protect those who did not comment for this story. | Mark Lathrop photo

The petition signed by employees and given to Pat Bondurant is shown. The employees’ names were blurred to protect those who did not comment for this story. | Mark Lathrop photo

Jason Bondurant said he was not looking to stage a hostile takeover of the school, but wanted to preserve his father’s legacy. Arvizu, Johnson, Lathrop and Rose said they all chose to leave with Jason Bondurant because they refused to work any longer for his mother.

“My honest goal was to keep the school going, whether or not a new group that purchased this… and said, ‘Jason, we love that you’ve got the last name but we’re going to have a new management team,’” Jason Bondurant said. “I would have been OK with that… Just knowing that my dad’s school is still going is all that matters to me.”

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  • Ryan Denton
    December 7, 2018, 9:45 AM

    I 100% can confirm hostile working environment, I worked at bondurant for 2 years around the time right after pat took over. When she was around you walked on eggshells and hoped you didn’t get on her bad side

    REPLY
    • Josh Kimble@Ryan Denton
      December 7, 2018, 5:38 PM

      I too can confirm all of this as 100% true. Ryan…is your father Terry?

      REPLY
  • Gary Newman
    December 7, 2018, 4:34 PM

    Im starting a school in New Mexico I’m building the track now and I need instructors I’m willing to pay them something to relocate and to live on if their experience instructors the better I’m making the track dislike Montreal’s track without the chicane I’m going to teach military how to drive Formula Atlantic cars and get them over there shell shocked anybody who is interested in me give me a call 505 309 892 8 I would be very interested in talking with them

    REPLY
    • Stacy Boulderdash@Gary Newman
      December 8, 2018, 7:46 AM

      The person I feel sorry for the most is Bob.

      REPLY
      • Mike Paull@Stacy Boulderdash
        December 8, 2018, 12:26 PM

        "We deny all allegations" Gee, never heard that before! And as usual. the investment company that’s taking over, keeps the original problems on as "consultants, because well, ya know they did so well running the business into bankruptcy before

        REPLY
      • bob hoops@Stacy Boulderdash
        December 9, 2018, 7:48 AM

        I did the school a decade or so ago and Bob was a fixture. Iconic presentation. However, I doubt that Bob picked this wife for her management skills. Clearly she is obstructed in her ability to look down upon people who are beneath her. Anyone who thinks injecting their personal political or other views is an asset to business probably is a flawed U of Penn grad…….oh wait….nevermind.

        REPLY
  • Keven Maher
    December 9, 2018, 2:33 PM

    Did I miss something in story? How did Pat get 51% of a company that Bob Bondurant started? Also if these problems with Pat were so consistent was Bob ever notified and if so what did he try do about the problems, and if he wasn’t notified, then why?

    REPLY
  • testa Rossa
    December 10, 2018, 4:49 PM

    Elderly financial abuse is how 51% happens. Surprised it’s taken this long and can’t believe no one has stepped in. I could write a book. Bob is young at heart, but unfortunately believes anything Pat tells him. I was 1 of 3 girls that worked there and was employed for 4 years. Walked out after hr told me to "deal with it"

    REPLY
  • Stan Barrett
    December 12, 2018, 4:51 PM

    This is sad as Bob was not only a great friend to me but Paul Newman whom I met him through! I think his recovery after his accident is a remarkable story and should be a film and this is not an acceptable ending! I will always be indebted to him for helping me in my Nascar undertakings!

    REPLY

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