In addition to his manic "saves you money" commercials, Gallery Furniture's Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale has built his reputation in Houston on sports boosterism and promotions for a host of charities. As he tacitly acknowledged in a recent New York Times Magazine article, those charitable activities also result in good media exposure for his businesses.
Last week, one of his efforts went seriously awry, bringing together an unlikely combination of embarrassed local charity officials, an irate owner of a Beaumont oil distribution company and a suddenly sheepish Mac.
CNI Oil's Gene "Eddie" Bates claims he got stiffed by Mac after making a $1,000 charity pledge for 20 tickets to McIngvale's Reliant Stadium skybox for the Houston Texans-Miami Dolphins game.
That seemingly straightforward deal set off a chain of errors and admitted screwups by a number of parties along the way. It all began at the Warwick Hotel in April, when Bates happened to bid on the package of tickets for what he thought was a benefit for the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program. It turned out that SNAP was simply one of the beneficiaries and the event was actually the annual gala for the nonprofit Diana Foundation, a longtime Houston gay and lesbian organization that raises money for a variety of worthy causes.
Bates paid up that night on his winning bid, although he was given no documentation certifying the tickets. Adding to the confusion, the Diana Foundation used SNAP's credit card machine since the organization does not have one of its own. So Bates's credit card receipt showed the money going directly to SNAP.
Bates says he repeatedly tried to claim the tickets over the summer from an employee of McIngvale's, Shannon Jacobs, and was told that they were in the mail. Jacobs apparently became involved in installing furniture at Reliant Stadium during the last-minute rush to complete the facility and was unavailable. Bates claims that when he finally called Mac directly at Gallery Furniture on the Monday before last Saturday's game, the furniture king was rude and hung up on him.
According to Bates, he asked for the tickets and McIngvale initially laughed and told him, "I gave them to my banker. That's how it goes." Then Mac noted that Bates hadn't even paid the full value of the tickets, which he placed at $5,000.
Bates says he replied: "Well, that may be so, Jim, but you know there were 700 people at the auction who obviously didn't think they were worth more than I paid for them, 'cause I was the high bidder." Bates has run silent auctions for petroleum group events and notes that "seldom does anything go for what it's really worth. That's why people bid on 'em and why people donate 'em for free."
"The thousand dollars ain't shit," Bates fumed to The Insider last week. "I just can't believe he's acting like a prick How can a guy that's been as successful as he has in Houston get away with acting like that?"
In addition to the ticket costs, Bates says he had reserved a bus to take a group of his company's best customers to the game, as well as dinner in a private room at a local Pappadeaux. He estimates he wasted $1,400 in preparation for the outing that never happened.
When The Insider phoned Gallery Furniture last week, Mattress Mac sang a sweeter tune. He admitted he may have been gruff with Bates when he called.
"I run a one-man show up here, and during the heat of the battle, sometimes I probably am a bit short with people," said McIngvale.
"It was my fault," he continued. "I screwed up and gave away the tickets to the first game. I told him I'd give 'em to him for any other game he wanted. And apparently he didn't like that, so I gladly will give him his money back and I'll pay the money to the charity."
Bates says he toyed with the idea of putting together another field trip to McIngvale's skybox but recruiting a different crew.
"I really thought about telling him I'd pick another game, and then go take the bus and pick up 20 winos underneath the bridge downtown in Houston, and let 'em go up there and drink his booze."
Bates eventually turned down the replacement-ticket offer, saying, "it's already cost me $1,200 to $1,400 in lost deposits, plus a great deal of embarrassment to me for my customers, and I frankly don't think I can trust him. I don't want to go through it again."
Officials of the Diana Foundation blame themselves for the errors that left Bates without tickets.
SNAP executive director Sean Hawkins, also a Diana Foundation member, says the matter should have been handled more professionally.
"I think the Dianas dropped the ball in failing to obtain some type of official documentation for the auction item when it was donated. I don't know who officially donated it, but I do know that there was not an official gift certificate or anything like that." Hawkins says his main concern is "to do whatever we need to do to make it right to Mr. Bates."
Gil Warrick, the director of Diana's silent auction, agrees.
"We're grossly embarrassed about it. I personally feel responsible because I'm the person who contacted Mac to get him to make the generous donation in the first place. But to set the record straight, he did offer the gentleman the entire skybox for an actual game as opposed to a preseason game."
Asked whether he was willing to repay both the bid cost of the tickets and the $1,400 Bates was out for the incidental expenses, Mac was quick to sign on.
"I'll pay that, too," McIngvale vowed. "I don't know what else I can do. I don't necessarily know that I believe the secondary part, but I'll take it for his word and I'll give $2,400 to him or the charity or whatever he wants."
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Apprised of McIngvale's pledge, Bates said he would take the entire refund and donate it to SNAP.
Meanwhile, Bill Poplin, first vice president of the Diana Foundation, got in on the act by sending Bates an apology and a check for $1,000. Poplin pledged that the organization would eat the cost rather than deduct it from money already passed on to the auction beneficiaries. He also offered to have the foundation reimburse Bates for the other expenses he incurred. Poplin said the matter had come to the foundation's attention only when The Insider called for comment.
"The Diana Foundation has successfully raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Houston community over the past 50 years, and we are truly sorry for the unavailability of the prize as offered and purchased," wrote Poplin. He explained that the group "relies heavily on the support of companies such as Gallery Furniture, which has unfailingly and generously supported our fundraisers We therefore will do whatever is appropriate to insure the maintenance of their high reputations, including taking responsibility when we have made a mistake."
Considering that Bates's ire was aroused primarily by Mac's contentious conversation with him, perhaps the Dianas should consider providing free phone-sensitivity training for the store owner as well.