Employees claim hostile workplace led to walkout, short closure of premier driving school

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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 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.”

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

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

“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 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.

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.”

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.”

This article originally appeared on ClassicCars.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

Featured Image Credit: Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving’s Facebook page.

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