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The Vendo Co. v. Stoner

JANUARY 30, 1969.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County, Sixteenth Judicial Circuit; the Hon. JOHN S. PETERSEN, Judge, presiding. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.


Rehearing denied March 24, 1969.

Defendants, Harry B. Stoner and Stoner Investments, Inc., appeal from judgments in a suit for breach of a sales and employment contract and for injunctive relief, heard without a jury.

Judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendants as follows: (1) against Harry B. Stoner in the amount of $250,000; (2) against Harry B. Stoner and Stoner Investments, Inc., in the amount of $1,100,000; (3) against Harry B. Stoner, restraining him from "engaging, directly or indirectly, in the vending machine manufacturing business, individually or as a partner, employee or agent, anywhere in the United States or in any foreign country in which the Vendo Company engaged in such business (as of June 1, 1959), until June 1, 1969; and (4) against Stoner Investments, Inc., restraining it in similar terms."

A question is also raised on the pleadings, arising out of the court's order striking certain defenses and counterclaims based upon the Federal and State Antitrust laws.

In April, 1959, the defendant corporation was principally engaged in the business of manufacturing and selling candy vending machines throughout the United States, and was about to license a company to sell its machines in England. This corporation will herein be referred to as Stoner Investments, its present name, notwithstanding that it was named Stoner Mfg. Corp. in 1959. The corporate shares of Stoner Investments were owned in 1959 by defendant Harry B. Stoner, his wife, his mother and his sister-in-law, Ruth Netrey. Mr. Stoner was, without dispute, the principal officer and in control of the management of the corporation.

The Vendo Company, in 1959, had been one of the leading manufacturers and sellers of vending machines for hot and cold beverages, ice cream and certain other products. The company did not manufacture or sell vending machines for candy, cigarettes, hot sandwiches and instant coffee and tea at that time, but such machines had been considered and were in various stages of research and development. Vendo machines were then being sold in 58 countries in every continent. Clearly, Vendo was a considerably larger and more diversified company than Stoner Investments.

On April 3, 1959, a contract was executed by which Vendo agreed to purchase Stoner Investments' assets, excluding real estate and improvements thereon, cash on hand or on deposit, and receivables. In essence, Vendo was to pay $3,400,000 in cash, subject to certain adjustments, deliver 60,000 shares of its fully paid and nonassessable common stock, pay a portion of its profits in excess of $250,000 in any calendar year from the assets being purchased for a period of ten years, pay 25% of monies received from sales outside the United States of Stoner Investments' products, also for a period of ten years, assume responsibility for the collection of accounts receivable, and pay all debts, obligations and liabilities of Stoner Investments. The sales agreement imposed the following restriction on the selling corporation:

"Section 15. From and after the closing, the Company [Stoner Investments] will not own, directly or indirectly, manage, operate, join, control or participate in the ownership, management, operation or control of, or be connected in any manner with, any business engaged in the manufacture and sale of vending machines under any name similar to the Company's present name, and, for a period of ten (10) years after the closing, the Company will not in any manner, directly or indirectly, enter into or engage in the United States or any foreign country in which Vendo or any affiliate or subsidiary is so engaged, in the manufacture and sale of vending machines or any business similar to that now being conducted by the Company."

In addition to the sales agreement, an employment contract was executed whereby Mr. Stoner would serve Vendo in an executive capacity for five years, or until June 1, 1964, at an annual salary of $50,000. This agreement also contained a non-competition clause which reads as follows:

"5. During the term of this agreement and for a period of five (5) years following the termination of his employment hereunder, whether by lapse of time or by termination as hereinafter provided, Stoner shall not directly or indirectly, in any of the territories in which the Company or its subsidiaries or affiliates is at present conducting business and also in territories which Stoner knows the Company or its subsidiaries or affiliates intends to extend and carry on business by expansion of present activities, enter into or engage in the vending machine manufacturing business or any branch thereof, either as an individual on his own account, or as a partner or joint venturer, or as an employee, agent or salesman for any person, firm or corporation or as an officer or director of a corporation or otherwise, provided however that the Company, its subsidiaries and affiliates shall be excluded from the restrictions hereof and provided also that Stoner shall be permitted to own, hold, acquire and dispose of stocks and other securities which are traded in the investment security market whether on listed exchanges or over the counter."

The employment contract provided that Mr. Stoner "shall regulate his own hours of employment and shall determine the amount of time and effort which he shall devote" to Vendo, and that the value of his services are not to be measured by the time and effort he devotes to the business, but by his advice, counsel, know-how and experience. The contract further provided, inter alia, that Vendo "shall have the right to terminate this agreement upon thirty (30) days' notice in the event of the substantial violation of the terms hereof by Stoner."

There was evidence offered to show that Mr. Stoner, after the signing of the sales agreement but before the closing of the transaction, had second thoughts about the wisdom of the sale. He made statements to this effect to the business representative of the union for the plant's employees, intimating at the time that many of the employees would be losing their jobs and that equipment was being moved out of the plant. It does not appear that the union took any action — other than to investigate — as a result of these conversations.

Almost immediately after the take-over by Vendo, several points of friction developed between Mr. Stoner and certain of Vendo's other executives. Essentially, Mr. Stoner complained that his services were not being utilized, that he was being treated as nothing more than a "figurehead," and that the procedures and employees of Vendo were ineffectual.

For several years prior to the sale to Vendo, R.W. Phillips (Rod) had been the Stoner plant superintendent, and his son, William Phillips (Bill), had been assistant superintendent. Rod was liaison engineer between the engineering and production departments, and participated in design work on a day-to-day basis. Bill had a degree in aeronautical engineering and Navy training in electronics.

Bill resigned from Vendo in June or July of 1960, ostensibly because he was no longer in line to become the plant manager, and because he purportedly disagreed with Vendo's philosophy and attitude concerning product quality. Within two months of his resignation, Bill met with Mr. Stoner and proposed that the latter finance the development by Bill of an electronic coin detecting device which he had conceived, and which would be of considerable value in the vending machine as well as in other industries. That discussion concluded with the agreement that Stoner Investments would pay Bill a salary of $650 per month to develop such a device, and any patents thereon would belong to Stoner Investments. Bill's father, Rod Phillips, was present at the time of this conversation.

Working primarily in his basement at home, Bill nearly completed the coin detector by the end of 1960. A patent was issued in October of 1961, and was assigned to Stoner Investments. Except for a "breadboard" model, the coin detector was never produced. Bill received a total of $3,250 as salary from Stoner Investments for his work on the coin detector, and in addition was reimbursed nearly $1,000 for expenses.

Rod Phillips also resigned from Vendo in mid-1960, at about the same time as Bill resigned. Rod's stated reason for leaving was that he resented "spying" on the progress of another company which manufactured slug-rejectors. Rod spent approximately six months after his resignation in retirement, and it was during this period of time that his son, Bill, was designing the electronic coin detector with the financial aid of Stoner Investments.

In late 1960 or early 1961, when Bill's design of the coin detector was virtually completed, Rod approached Mr. Stoner with the request that Stoner provide sufficient funds to enable Rod to engineer and develop a particular type of vending machine. Mr. Stoner agreed to have Stoner Investments make noninterest bearing loans to Rod for that purpose. According to the testimony of defendants, neither Mr. Stoner nor Stoner Investments was to have any ownership or control in Rod's venture, it being their position that Rod was entitled to this consideration for his many years of loyal service to Stoner Investments. During 1961 and 1962, Stoner Investments loaned Rod Phillips a total of $206,000.

In addition to making the above loans to Rod, Mr. Stoner made available to Rod and Bill in early 1961 an old milk plant building known as the Middle Avenue Building. Rod was charged no rent, but made repairs to the building with materials purchased by Mr. Stoner.

In August of 1961, two other former employees of Stoner Investments — and then employees of Vendo — resigned from Vendo and joined Rod and Bill. Their combined salaries of $1,150 per month were paid by Stoner Investments until December of 1962. One of these men had between fifteen and twenty years of design experience with Stoner Investments prior to the sale to Vendo, and the other had served as a toolmaker.

The vending machine developed by Rod and Bill Phillips was to be used for the vending of candy. There were three characteristics of this machine which contributed to its eventual popularity and acceptance, namely: (1) positive stock rotation, known as first-in first-out, or FIFO, where the first product stocked in the machine would be the first one sold, thus reducing the chance of vending or discarding stale candy; (2) continuous display through a window of the actual product next to be vended; and (3) capacity for stocking mixed products in a single conveyor, and consequent elimination of the usual necessity to sell out the product before restocking with a different product. Although machines having those features had been on the market for many years, none had incorporated all three of the above characteristics, and in fact no practical machine with all these characteristics had ever been developed previously.

It is one of Vendo's contentions herein that Mr. Stoner's financial participation in the development of this machine amounted to the appropriation of a trade secret of Vendo.

It is uncontroverted that Vendo, before the acquisition of the Stoner plant, had been taking steps with a view toward the development of a FIFO candy vending machine that incorporated a window displaying the actual product to be vended, and which would permit the stocking of mixed products in a single conveyor. The authority for an expenditure on such a project was first assigned by Vendo in December of 1958. This project led to the fabrication of two "developmental mechanisms." Neither of these models included the vend-the-bar-you-see window, although an artist's sketch of a complete machine, having such windows in front of each conveyor, was prepared. There was evidence to show that artist's sketches of Vendo's contemplated machine were shown to Mr. Stoner and Rod and Bill Phillips in early June, 1959, almost immediately after Vendo's acquisition of the Stoner plant.

One of these models was exhibited at a products planning meeting at the Stoner plant on August 3, 1959, at which Mr. Stoner and Rod Phillips were present. At that meeting, the Stoner Division sales manager said the machine was deficient in three respects: (1) the product would have to be stocked upside down; (2) the machine could tip over during loading because all of the conveyors would have to be swung out; and (3) production of the machine would be unduly expensive. The minutes of that meeting stated that the Sales Department "feels the objectives of stock rotation and visual display are sound but the particular design in question is not acceptable because of loading and inventory problems." These minutes went on to state that Vendo's Research and Engineering Department "is to continue research as to how to basically improve the stock rotation idea so that it can be made practical."

In January, 1960, Vendo's Vice-President in charge of Research and Engineering made a handwritten notation on an interoffice memorandum, stating: "I agree on the need for rotation of stock, but not on [this] unit. I think a better one could be devised." Neither of these models was patented, and a Vendo executive had written patent counsel that "we do not intend to commercialize" these models. In September and October of 1960, Vendo sent both models to Vendo's "morgue" which, according to our reading of the record, is the destination for non-active — but not necessarily abandoned — projects.

The machine developed by Rod and Bill Phillips was called the Lektro-Vend machine, and while incorporating the three characteristics of first-in first-out, a vend-the-bar-you-see window, and mixed stock in a single conveyor, it differed in many basic respects from the models developed by Vendo. For example, the Lektro-Vend machine was electrically powered while Vendo's was to be mechanically powered; Vendo's machine required approximately 4,000 screws for the shelving mechanism, while the Lektro-Vend machine eliminated these by using a series of L-shaped shelves interconnected with pins; the conveyor in the Lektro-Vend machine moved in a track guided by plastic wheels, while Vendo's conveyor unitized bicycle chain affair with hooks; and the Lektro-Vend machine was loaded by tilting out the conveyor within the machine's center of gravity, thus avoiding the objectionable swing-out loading requirement of Vendo's machine. More significantly, the Lektro-Vend machine was functionally and economically successful, while many undesirable features of the Vendo machine rendered its production impractical.

The first prototypes of the Lektro-Vend machine were exhibited in October, 1962, at a trade show in San Francisco. This machine was accepted so well that another company took its own stock rotation (FIFO) machine off display. In fact, certain officers and directors of Vendo were so impressed with the machine that one of them approached Rod Phillips at the show and discussed the possiblity of Vendo purchasing the machine.

It appears that, prior to the show, Rod Phillips had intended to sell the Lektro-Vend design and tooling, but the industry's response to the machine led to Rod's and Bill's decision to manufacture and sell the machine themselves. After returning from the show, Rod discussed the response to his machine with Mr. Stoner, and invited Stoner to join with him in his plan to manufacture and sell the Lektro-Vend machine generally.

In December of 1962, immediately before the Vendo Board of Directors' meeting, Mr. Stoner told the Board Chairman that he, Stoner, would like a release from his employment contract, for the reason that he had an opportunity to invest in the Lektro-Vend machine and to participate with Rod Phillips in its manufacture and sale. He was requested to submit his request in writing for the Board to consider. Mr. Stoner made no mention of his previous financial aid toward the development of the Lektro-Vend machine. In short, Mr. Stoner was told that with his capital and experiences, he would be a formidable competitor, and that part of the consideration for the sales and employment contracts was that Vendo would not be competing with Mr. Stoner or his company.

While his release from his contract was denied, he was requested to act on behalf of Vendo in looking into the purchase of the Lektro-Vend machine from the Phillipses. Stoner discussed the matter with Rod Phillips, and then arranged a meeting in January, 1963, which was attended by Stoner, Rod Phillips and certain of Vendo's officers. The Lektro-Vend machine was demonstrated and explained at that time, with Stoner taking no active part. Although price was not discussed at the meeting, Stoner later reported to Vendo that Rod Phillips was asking $1,500,000. Stoner testified that the Seeburg Corporation had shown an interest in purchasing the Lektro-Vend machine at that price.

Although Stoner recommended that Vendo purchase the machine, Vendo would not agree to pay such an amount. Instead, in March of 1963, in reply to an inquiry from Stoner, Vendo's Vice-President in charge of operations wrote that Vendo would only pay for out-of-pocket costs, "plus a fair profit to Rod and his associates; taking into consideration the amount of time, money and ingenuity which they had expended on the project, but that it was my feeling that this wouldn't add up to anything like $1,500,000."

Back in December, 1962, at about the time that Stoner was asking to be released from his employment contract with Vendo, his sister-in-law, Ruth Netrey, made a loan of $350,000 to Rod Phillips on his personal note bearing 4 1/2% interest. Defendant's evidence is that Stoner in no way persuaded or influenced Mrs. Netrey to make this loan, which within one year was increased to $525,000. Mrs. Netrey had been one of the shareholders of Stoner Investments at the time of the sale of assets to Vendo, but had since sold her stock in that corporation, as did Mr. Stoner's mother, leaving only Mr. Stoner and his wife as shareholders of the defendant corporation.

In March or April of 1963, Stoner Investments had completed the construction of a general purpose office and manufacturing building on Sullivan Road in Aurora, where it had owned 370 acres of vacant land. The original purpose for constructing this building was allegedly to enable Stoner to prefabricate homes in the winter and to start the development of an industrial park. Its first and only occupants, however, were Rod and Bill Phillips who used the building for the manufacture of the Lektro-Vend machine. There was evidence tending to show that Stoner and the Phillipses knew before the end of 1962 that the Sullivan Road Plant would be used by them for this purpose.

Admittedly, Mr. Stoner never advised Vendo until the Spring of 1963 as to his arrangements with Bill and Rod Phillips. He testified that while he made no attempt to conceal these arrangements, he ...

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