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Two grandchildren of Rufus C. Willey, whose legacy is linked to the RC Willey Home Furnishings store chain, say they didn't get their share of the fortune created when the company was sold to billionaire Warren Buffett in 1995.
Don McBroom and Helen Immelt say they discovered their ownership interest in the company only two years ago after receiving a letter from the personal attorney of Bill Child, who was Willey's son-in-law and the man who built up the furniture store chain into a company coveted by one of the world's richest men.
They say that correspondence included an "odd, unexplained document" that gave them a unsettling glimpse into a half-century-long plot by Child and others to divest Willey's grandchildren of their rightful ownership interest in RC Willey.
And now the pair have filed a lawsuit in Utah's 3rd District Court in an attempt to get what they believe is their fair share of one of Utah's biggest home-grown fortunes a share that could be worth more than $150 million.
"This is a case that relates to the wishes of Rufus Willey" before his death in 1954, said G. Stephen Long, a Denver attorney who is representing Immelt and McBroom. "And it involves documents only uncovered in 2010 that have been missing for a long time."
Child, though, offers a far different view of the dispute.
In answering the lawsuit, he said Immelt for more than two decades accused him and his brother, Sheldon Child, of having deprived her of her inheritance.
Immelt "has known that her repeated accusations were false, yet she continued to repeat and publish them to family members, business associates, religious leaders, governmental officials and others, all with the intention of causing distress and embarrassment and extorting money," Child's answer states.
When Bill Child took over what was then R.C. Willey & Son after the death of his father-in-law, that company was a small insolvent, two-employee business housed in a 600-square-foot cinder block building in Syracuse, according to court documents.
From 1954 to 1995, with the help of Sheldon, the brothers turned the company into a success. When RC Willey Home Furnishing was sold to Buffett in 1995, it was generating revenue of more than $250 million a year and had more than 1,500 employees, the documents said.
Child's answer points to a 1973 agreement under which McBroom and Immelt allegedly sold their interest in R.C. Willey & Son.
"In 1973, William Child and Helen Willey Barber, who was Rufus C. Willey's widow, decided that in order to grow and prosper, the corporation they formed after Rufus C. Willey's death would require financing," Child's answer states.
Yet the answer states that financing would have been complicated by the interests held by Willey's heirs. So with the advice of the company's attorneys and accountants, Child and Barber developed a plan to appraise then purchase those interests.
"We don't believe that anything that was done in 1973 was improper," said Alan L. Sullivan, a Salt Lake attorney representing Child and a number of other defendants in the case. "In fact they (Immelt and McBroom) signed that document either in person or through a guardian."
Immelt, who was 21 in 1973 and McBroom, who was still a minor at that time, offer a different interpretation of events. They maintain that the 1973 stock sale agreement was "fraudulently procured and (is) legally void."
They contend that Willey, before his death, set up his estate so that wife Helen received a "life estate" in all of his property. The argue Willey's intent was that his widow would be able to live off the profits and income from his business for the rest of her life.
Immelt and McBroom argue that the establishment of the life trust meant their grandmother Barber didn't have the right to sell Child an interest in the company, and that Willey intended that after his wife's death ownership of his business should go to his children and later his grandchildren.
Child is asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, while Immelt and McBroom are requesting that a jury hear their case and that they be awarded damages to be proved at trial.
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RC Willey Home Furnishings, a brief history
1932 • Rufus C. Willey begins selling Hotpoint appliances door-to-door in and around Syracuse. He sells his goods on credit, an innovative practice at the time, and becomes a top Hotpoint salesman.
1950 • Willey, operating under the name R.C. Willey & Son, opens a store next to his home in Syracuse. The store is still operating today.
1954 • Rufus C. Willey dies. His son-in-law, Bill Child, begins to run the company. Over the next four decades, it expands to become a dominant player in the home furnishings industry in Utah.
1995 • RC Willey Home Furnishings is purchased by billionaire Warren Buffett.