Some of you may have gotten a visit from someone selling Kirby vacuum cleaners. Kirby cleaners have been sold exclusively through door-to-door sales for over 90 years. While they get rave reviews from Consumer Reports and are insanely durable, the company is one of the most disreputable businesses in the nation. Ripoff Report and Complaints Board contain horror stories about the deceptive, high-pressure tactics used by Kirby's distributors. Among other things, they are taught to target the elderly and other people who normally can't stand up to grueling sales pitches. Complaints about these guys date back as far as the 1960s. The vacuums are also insanely overpriced compared to other high-end vacuums sold in stores.
Now how in the world can this be going on, you ask? Well, it turns out that Kirby is owned by Warren Buffett. Kirby's longtime parent, the Scott Fetzer Company (the publishers of World Book, for those who don't know), has been a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway since 1986. That's right--one of the most disreputable companies in America is a subsidiary of a New York Stock Exchange company. Sounds like a little bit of sunshine is in order.
It's hard to believe that Buffett doesn't know some of the things Kirby's distributors are doing. Among some of the tactics they employ:
- Whenever you say the price is too high, salesmen have been known to make long-distance calls to their "managers" on your phone.
- Prospective salesmen are told that their visits are all set up in advance--only to find out they're not.
- Employees aren't told in advance that they're independent contractors.
- There are several instances where salesmen don't leave when asked, and only threats to call the police get rid of them.
Kirby maintains it has no responsibility for its distributors, but at least two courts have ruled that they in fact are. In 1992, the North Dakota Supreme Court held Kirby liable after a distributor there raped a customer. It turned out the guy had been hired despite having an assault conviction on his record and charges of sexual misconduct pending in court. In 2008, the Texas Supreme Court issued a similar ruling involving a guy who'd been hired despite a history of inappropriate sexual behavior. Both courts--two of the most conservative in the country, I might add--ruled that since Kirby requires its contractors to only do business door-to-door, it retains control of them.
One really has to wonder how anyone can think doing business strictly door-to-door is a viable idea, especially given the changed times. Add the disreputable behavior in, and there's no doubt about it--Kirby needs to be driven out of business. Somehow I think we need to put the heat on Buffett to unload this company, as it wouldn't even exist without Berkshire Hathaway propping it up.