Cover Story

Warding Off

by Heather Miller

After evading angry customers since late 2010, Rene and Nina Ward of W. Home Furnishings have packed up and left town. They still insist a buyer will take over their defunct River Ranch store and make good on its debts.
By Heather Miller

After evading angry customers since late 2010, Rene and Nina Ward of W. Home Furnishings have packed up and left town. They still insist a buyer will take over their defunct River Ranch store and make good on its debts.
By Heather Miller

Call it shopper's intuition or obvious signs of a disquieted business. Either way, patrons of W. Home Furnishings in upscale River Ranch had a hunch that something was amiss.

Ellen Supple, one of at least 27 customers who now feels bamboozled, ordered $2,400 worth of slip covers from the store in March. As of Aug. 26, she was still waiting for them to arrive.

"All they ever did was say they never got them, or the factory never shipped them out," Supple recalls.

The 4-year-old River Ranch retail store officially closed Aug. 18 when First Bank and Trust stepped in and seized what was left in the 2,200 square-foot rental space. Based on a time line of complaints filed with the Lafayette Police Department against the now defunct company, financial troubles were brewing for more than nine months while W. owners Rene and Nina Ward (the W. is for Ward) pretended it was business as usual at their posh location.

The Wards moved from New Orleans to Lafayette in 2007 with high hopes of using the lessons learned from a fallen furniture business in Covington as grounds for a successful run as W. Home Furnishings. Their new business model appears to have passed financial muster during the first few years, as the couple expanded in the fall of 2010, adding a second location in Baton Rouge.

Standing outside of W. Home Furnishings, Lafayette business owners Ryan Burley and Cherie Hebert wonder if they'll ever see the merchandise they paid for and never received from the fine furniture store in River Ranch that's now closed.

But whether the ventures ended in failure or fraud is still undetermined, and it could take months for the Lafayette Police Department to complete an investigation into at least five complaints from patrons who paid for merchandise they never received.

LPD Cpl. Paul Mouton, the department's spokesman, says the complaints stem from purchases made as far back as November 2010, the same month as the grand opening of W. in Baton Rouge.
"There were substantial purchases made," Mouton says. "If the DA says it's criminal, then we could issue a warrant regarding theft of the money. If it's civil the parties will have to seek remedy in court."

Ryan Burley, owner of Burley-Hipp Gallery and Interiors and one of LPD's W. complainants, says detectives have subpoenaed bank records and other financial statements to determine where the money paid to the company was spent. Burley's purchases from W. were on behalf of clients who hired him to redesign their home. His $12,000 check to W. cleared his bank account on Dec. 1, 2010, but only half of his order was delivered in January as promised. The other $5,200 worth of items never came, and all he got from the Wards was a long list of excuses.

Former customers and others close to the investigation say they've since learned that the Wards had not paid rent to River Ranch in several months. And for two days before the bank arrived to take over the company's assets, Rene Ward was seen moving furniture out of the building. By the time the bank showed up, Rene had packed up the River Ranch home his family was leasing and left town in the middle of the night. Nina had already been out-of-state for several weeks.

River Ranch developer Robert Daigle did not return calls for comment on the Wards' rent status.

With a referral from her business partner in hand, BBR Creative's Cherie Hebert went to W. for furniture and d├ęcor assistance when she decided to completely redecorate her living room. She worked closely with Nina on the design and furniture purchases and was, for the most part, pleased with Nina's taste and suggestions. A set of chairs Nina selected for the living room didn't appeal to Hebert, which eventually landed her with a $1,300 in-store credit after Hebert says she was misled by Nina about the store's return policy.

Hebert cashed in her store credit in May when she ordered new drapes and rugs for her home. She called the store after weeks went by and she never received her purchase, stepping up the dialing frequency a few weeks ago when she was repeatedly unable to reach anyone at the store.

No one returned her calls, and a young woman reached by phone at W. told Hebert that Nina was out of state on business. But Hebert didn't buy it. She started asking around and soon realized others had similar stories of being stiffed on prepaid purchases. And when Hebert stopped by the store in person to confront the situation, she found the doors shuttered and the business "papered up."

"She skipped town. She never returned my phone calls. That upset me the most," Hebert says. "I'm a business owner. I would've never done what she did."

Feeling defrauded, Hebert sent Nina a message through Facebook and offered her soured sentiments toward W., as well as her home address in case the Wards elected to "pony up and do the right thing."

Nina Ward, co-owner of now defunct W. Home Furnishings

The response she received was lengthy, almost 800 words of woeful explanation.
"I left Lafayette and the business well over a month ago to take a job out of state to provide for our family," Nina says in her response. "We were not personally taking any money from the business, this is why I went to get a job. You have never been in my shoes and have no idea what is going on. We did not walk away, we were forced out by River Ranch and the bank on Aug. 18th, we had run out of time to remedy things. My family's business, which by the way my name is not on nor did I control the finances, has failed and is in the process of working with banks, bookeepers [sic], lawyers and businesss [sic] brokers to follow through on all outstanding orders. We have not taken a dime from the business."

Nina's story is at least partially true, though Sheri Morgan's experience at W. casts some suspicion on Nina's claims that the couple didn't siphon money from the company. Morgan drove to Lafayette from her home in Baton Rouge to purchase her "dream sofa," a specific couch model from a designer that W. carried. Her $1,700 order was placed on June 25, the outcome of her story the same as every other customer who's come forward since the business closed. She's still waiting.

"She gave me a discount for paying it all outright," Morgan says.

Robin Wright of Sunbelt Business Brokers confirms that there was and still is an interested buyer for the Wards' business. The original prospective suitor, according to Wright, wanted to take over and run the company full-time but was turned down for commercial loans. A new prospective buyer from out-of-state has reviewed the company's financial statements, and Wright says he is considering making an offer to the bank for the assets seized and moving W. Home Furnishings to a new location. The first order of business, if he decides to buy, will be fulfilling the long list of orders that haven't been received.

"It's not a done deal, but it looks promising," Wright says. "What we're working out, if it flies, it's a win-win for everybody. W. reopens, it's a great store and we've got someone who really wants to be there and run the business, three employees coming back, and an investor who wanted a store in Lafayette, so he's getting a good deal. This is a good business. They were making money. I'm not saying that Rene and Nina did everything perfect. Rene's problems come from other things. It's unfortunate that it happened the way it did. But we're dong the best we can to take care of things. With all their hearts, they want to see their customers taken care of. They're not going to get a penny."

As for W.'s customers in limbo, they can only hope that the deal closes and someone makes good on the more than $28,000 in collective purchases they've never received.

A picture submitted by a customer who was allowed to enter W. Home Furnishings after it closed its doors reveals a list of names and merchandise owed to patrons that hangs in the back room of the business.

"I do feel empathy for these people," Burley says. "I wish for no one to fail in business. But I do think you have to have a level of integrity. At a certain point it's not just a business gone bad. I think it becomes theft. And I don't think they have empathy for me. If he had leveled with me and said I'm sorry, I don't have the money to fulfill your order,' I could have leveled with my clients. It would've made things a whole lot better."