Terry Fransen of St. Paul started working for White Castle when he was just 16, hired to flip stacks of sliders.
Over the next 30 years, Fransen climbed the fast food chain's corporate ladder, eventually earning the lofty honor of district manager. He stayed in that position for more than 25 years, overseeing three or four Minnesota franchises at a time.
He met his wife at White Castle. Their three daughters were all one-time employees. Fransen says he was in every way a company man, living the American dream.
That all changed in 2012, when Fransen was suddenly put in charge of 10 separate stores. Overloaded with responsibilities, he received a scathing performance review that year. By May 2014, Fransen was demoted to general manager, told to run the day-to-day operations of two separate stores. It was too much work. His pay was cut by $600 per week. He retired on his 40th anniversary with White Castle.
Fransen has a pretty good idea why he was "set up to fail" in the final years of his career.
Lisa Ingram, daughter of previous CEO Bill Ingram, stepped into power in 2011. She started hosting company-wide meetings where she allegedly said things like, "Millennials [are] younger, attuned to the new digital era, not set in their ways, and open-minded." "Old people," on the other hand, were "old school," unwilling to learn Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Fransen says at one meeting, Ingram posed the strange hypothetical: "If you were in a life boat, who would you choose to be with you?" She said she'd certainly want people just like her, energized young upstarts with their hair on fire, not people who were slow.
To really hammer in the message, Fransen claims Ingram once offered a PowerPoint presentation comparing a photo of an elderly person as White Castle's longstanding -- yet no longer desirable -- customer against a picture of a young woman as the new target demographic.
Alleging age discrimination, Fransen filed a lawsuit against White Castle.
"I was sitting in [the lawyer's] office. I was looking out the window, and I just couldn't believe what was going on," Fransen says. "It was devastating. Someone takes that much money away from you, I was just lucky that I could live. I didn't lose my home, but it was sad, really sad."
Fransen has since found a new full-time job at Cub Foods.
Allen Spreeman of Montrose, the second plaintiff on the suit, likewise started working for the chain in his teens. He stuck with White Castle for 35 years as a general manager.
But as soon as Ingram was officially named White Castle's CEO, Spreeman was suddenly tasked with running two restaurants at the same time. They were located in St. Cloud and Blaine, 75 miles apart. He struggled to adjust, and in November 2014 took a medical leave for knee surgery. By the time he'd recovered, White Castle told him his general manager position was gone.
Spreeman was demoted to an hourly team member, earning only $10.37 compared to his previous $27.
"It's extremely unusual for one employee to work with one employer for multiple decades," says Steven Andrew Smith, lawyer for the two men. "To me, the idea of these guys who worked really hard for nearly their entire working lives and did great work ... this isn't the way they wanted this to end. And it probably shouldn't have ended this way."
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