RALEIGH, N.C. -- The convenience-store industry shook from its calm on July 13 when a company no one had ever heard of promised to set the industry on its ear. It debuted with an aggressive plan to buy 1,000 c-stores within 12 months—an over-the-top idea that would overnight propel North Carolina-based Guess Corp. into a top 10 c-store operator.
As if trying to prove a point, Guess Corp. followed its c-store investment announcement with a remarkable run of 32 press releases in a 54-day sweep, from July 11 to Sept. 2, highlighting a series of bold and audacious plans:
- Hiring a design firm to develop its c-store offer.
- Releasing renderings of its store plans.
- Calling for “operating partners” with a liquid net worth of $750,000 who would own up to 40% of a GP Express c-store location.
- Announcing the launch of a coffee unit and a bread company that would serve as foodservice partners to its c-stores.
- Unveiling its coup de grace: plans for a chain of “ultra-luxury gas/convenience stores as country clubs,” where members would have to prove a net worth of at least $50 million.
These clubs, branded GP Club, would feature “mansion-style” buildings boasting four levels of amenities including a steakhouse restaurant, meeting rooms, suites for sleeping and resting, a medical clinic, a designer boutique and a hair salon.
That announcement landed Guess Corp. in USA Today on Sept. 14.
The concept and story was nothing short of fantastic. Equally incredible is Guess Corp.’s description of itself: “a conglomerate [that] began as a luxury-goods holding company in 2012 with a focus on diamonds and has expanded into other business areas,” including the Guess Winery Co., the Guess Lumber Co. and the Guess Haircut Co.. Other lines included luxury real estate, fine art, private jets, yachts, automobiles, private islands, casinos, hotels and publishing.
Yet from the very outset of its foray into the convenience sector, suspicion hung. Employees with no relevant experience were hired on promises of six- to almost seven-figure salaries and impressive titles: chief corporate officer, chief development officer and chief executive officer, among others.
Intriguingly, none of these employees—all of them women, it touted—had any experience in c-stores, real estate or retail, according to Guess Corp.’s own website.
And then it all ceased. The flush of press releases suddenly stopped. Bills went unpaid. Accounts closed. Employees walked.
Despite website claims, there is no office in Raleigh or Durham outside of a registered agent address, a place where mail could be collected, a P.O. box and occasional employee use of a private business club in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In fact, it’s not clear at this point whether Guess Corp. has any employees at all, save for one, the man behind the whole thing: Jerry Demario Guess.
Through a decades-long trail of press releases, Guess claims to have started his first company at age 11, proclaimed 10 companies of his own by 16, and made an unsolicited buyout offer of $500 million for Krispy Kreme at age 23.
And, by 26, he was in prison.
All that appears to remain now are a corporate website and a lot of questions: What was Guess Corp.? Who is Jerry Guess? What was his motivation? Was he attempting to take advantage of c-store operators? And where is he now?
“I think the whole industry will be looking forward to what you find out,” one retailer told me before I stepped on a plane bound for North Carolina to see just what was happening in the offices of the Guess Corp.
What follows is the result of a hunt to understand what is—or was—behind one of the most unusual and mysterious stories to hit the convenience industry in years. That hunt led to a half-dozen addresses in North Carolina and dozens of phone calls, visits and emails with sources including former employees, neighbors, legal officials and more. Notably, none of these countless attempts got us an interview with Guess. But nonetheless, a picture still emerges.
We begin with: Who is Jerry Guess?
Who Is Jerry Guess?
Jerry Demario Guess presents himself as a top-level businessman, operating in multiple industries, holding meetings in private clubs and preparing to take his company public.
He is also an ex-convict living with his father outside Winston-Salem, N.C.
In a 2001 press release, a 16-year-old Guess, going by J.D. Guess, stated: “J.D. has owned businesses since the age of 11. His very first company was a promotional and novelty-button manufacturing business.”
His then-new company “was started with the help of some of J.D.’s closet [sic] friends. ... For a minimum of $6,000, they received shares of stock in the company and also a seat on the company's board of directors.”
Even then, Guess was planning “to go public with a portfolio of 80 companies that yields $700 million to $800 million in annual revenue.”
That never happened.
From 2007 to 2010, then going by Mario Guess, he operated Ligna Acquisition Group, advertised “as a sophisticated private-equity firm and direct lender routinely making loans of between $25 million and $1 billion to companies in need of private financing,” according to an FBI press release from 2012.
When lawsuits claiming breach of contract, fraud and deceptive practices began to spring up, Guess—now going by Dee Guess—relocated to Canada and began operating as MGL Asset Management Group. In 2008, MGL made an unsolicited bid to purchase Krispy Kreme for $500 million, driving up shares 4.4% on the day of the announcement.
With Guess’ whereabouts divulged, the FBI began investigating his business practices and in June 2010 charged Guess with wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns in connection with Ligna Group.
According to the indictment, Guess established escrow accounts for his clients and then used the funds deposited into these accounts for his personal benefit.
He pleaded guilty to the wire fraud and tax charges in October 2011 and was sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of more than $2.3 million.
“Jerry Guess devastated the hopes and dreams of his victims, all of whom were seeking loans for projects that would have created jobs and helped their communities,” U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins said in 2012. “The defendant’s profligate spending of victim money to fund his personal lifestyle is a small measure of the depravity of his crime.”
“Jerry Guess had no regard for the victims he betrayed,” added Roger A. Coe, then acting special agent in charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI. “He only cared to line his own pockets.”
Back on the Street
Guess was released from prison Nov. 6, 2015, and he isn’t shy about letting people know about his checkered past. On his LinkedIn page, Guess acknowledges his jail time and says he “now uses his experiences to provide guidance and advice to entrepreneurs and executives.”
Within a month of his release, Guess sought to rebuild himself via Guess Corp., with press releases about a new headquarters in the upmarket Wells Fargo building in Raleigh and establishing the Guess Diamond Group, “a new company for its diamond ventures.”
An apparent board of directors was named, and a variety of apparent businesses created, though no evidence could be tracked to their operations other than dated stock artwork on Guess’ website.
In July, Guess suggested the Guess Corp. would go public in 2017 with an expected valuation of $5.5 billion.
Around this time Guess and his Guess Corp. discovered the convenience-store industry. He began gathering employees with promises of sky-high salaries and lofty titles.
Why Convenience Stores?
Since Guess Corp. announced in July its c-store strategy (if it had bought 1,000 c-stores as it said it would, it would have become one of the top 10 largest chains in the industry), several CSP editors reached out for details and interviews.
A few cursory quotes came via email, but with little detail. Even former employees who say they now believe the entire company is a scam said they don’t know what Guess wanted to accomplish. They’re too angry to consider it.
“He is the biggest manipulator and liar I've ever met,” one said on condition of anonymity.
But convenience was just one of many industries he flirted with.
July 13 was a very busy day for Guess. In addition to issuing his c-store plans, he was also touting plans for the timber market, a diamond-certification group, religious institution development and commercial real estate, among others.
There were eight press releases issued that day, some of them in Spanish, on top of six released a day earlier. Employees say he wrote the releases himself. He posted them on news websites such as PRNewswire and PRWeb.
With many lines cast, convenience shook first and most aggressively. The c-store press release received coverage in CSP, other trade publications and mainstream media. Guess then followed with news of a c-store design, a foodservice plan and, finally, the idea for a luxury c-store club. That last one drew widespread interest—all the way to USA Today.
Guess followed by reaching out to potential industry financial backers, requesting help with funding and investigating real estate in which to invest.
Guess got as far as having store-design plans drawn up. And then, he disappeared from the landscape.
A real-estate group that was asked “to procure several properties” for Guess Corp. “terminated this relationship when none of the agreements we negotiated worked out,” Mark E. Fulk, president of the Meridian Realty Group, Winston-Salem, N.C., told CSP. Other companies contracted to work on the project are said to have backed out after they did not get paid. Most did not return calls from CSP.
Meanwhile, back in Raleigh, employees, waiting for their first paychecks, grew suspicious that they were being scammed. They started walking off the job.
The Employees Walk
Former employees of Guess Corp.—the would-be c-store industry disruptor that exploded onto the scene with grand plans—tell generally the same story: First contacted by Jerry Guess at random through LinkedIn or a friend of a friend, interviewed quickly and lavishly, and offered positions well outside their realm of experience.
Six-figure salaries were offered, with the promise of quick advancement.
Employees received their assignments via Guess Corp.’s corporate affairs email address, which all employees interviewed agree is Jerry Guess. “He used to hide behind the face of corporate affairs,” one said.
She actually met with Guess only a few times. “He was very professional; that’s why we thought we [would] get paid,” she said. “His behavior toward employees was good.”
Employees, having researched the company, knew about Guess’ criminal past but felt he deserved a second chance.
After patiently accepting two months of excuses for missing pay—waiting for bank paperwork to clear was a common refrain—the employees walked out in early September.
Similar stories can be found about Guess’ past business attempts on websites such as Ripoffreport.com and Mortgagegrapevine.com.
“I interviewed three times with Guess Enterprise Corporation recently. I start[ed] working for JD Guess in two days. I was just informed of these [web] sites by a friend who did a little research on my ‘dream come true’ job offer,” wrote one woman in 2007.
“I think he is back in business,” another wrote in July 2016. “A friend of mine received an offer from this company and after doing some research I believe this too is owned by Jerry.”
One of Guess’ executives accepted a salary offer of nearly $200,000, despite having limited professional experience. With an open-ended, seemingly genuine contract, she rationalized the position was “close to what I studied” in school. But she never saw a dime of it. And within two months, after complaining about not being paid, she got promoted—with a salary just shy of seven figures.
“I guess I knew it wasn’t real,” she says now. “But how could I say no?”
Guess issued bad checks or took the “check’s-in-the-mail” approach, employees said, often saying funds would be deposited into their accounts tomorrow—always tomorrow.
Guess Corp. employees either worked from home or in meeting rooms in the Piedmont Club, a members-only restaurant and event space perched atop the BB&T building in Winston-Salem, N.C. “He arranged for [us] to have memberships there, and now we are stuck paying for them when he promised he would pay the monthly dues,” one employee said on condition of anonymity.
Guess had a penchant for hiring women. More than a dozen are listed among executive employees of Guess Corp. on its website. In July, Guess Corp. issued a press release patting itself on the back for making a commitment “to support women in leadership positions throughout the company.”
After briefly feeling empowered by the notion of a business driven by women, one former employee now hypothesizes, “I think he thought a woman wouldn’t fight him about getting paid or try to take him to court over it—that they would just take it.”
Now the employees, all having walked off the job, are weighing their options.
“I honestly think the whole company is a scam as I have not received one dime since I started working there. He claims a lot, but then when it comes down to it, there is absolutely nothing to show for it,” one ex-employee said. “[We are] trying to figure out what to do about not receiving pay. [We] have been manipulated this whole time and are looking to seek legal action.”
Is This Over?
The turnabout driveway in front of the brick home in Lewisville, N.C., that Jerry Guess shares with his father is lined with five cars—some nice models, but not new. Still, nobody answers the door of the two-story home in an exclusive suburb of Winston-Salem on a Friday afternoon. A neighbor says Jerry is gone most days. As far as he knows, Jerry is unemployed. His father, it turns out, works for an auto dealer and more than once has proudly shown the $40,000 checks his son has brought home as evidence of the success of his business.
Guess’ listed headquarters, suite 1011 of one of Raleigh’s tallest landmarks, the Wells Fargo building, is vacant. Until recently, it was occupied by CT Corp., Guess Corp.’s registered agent, a third party designated to receive legal notices related to Guess Corp. and other businesses. CT Corp. has since moved elsewhere in Raleigh and would only speak in general terms about Guess and its business operations. When asked if it’s normal for a client to list CT’s address as its own, an employee there said, “We have several that do.”
At two shipping and postal stores outside Winston-Salem, N.C.—sites Guess Corp. used as office addresses in legal documents—the stories are the same: A representative of the Guess Corp. spoke to store employees about large deliveries to come and even proposed real-estate partnerships to store the goods. In neither case did that happen, and the Guess Corp. mailboxes were closed for nonpayment, according to sources at each site.
It’s unknown whether any c-store operators answered Guess’ call for investors. CSP research did not reveal any official allegations of criminal activity nor new action by the FBI.
It seems the latest chapter went down Sept. 22—only eight days after the ultra-luxury c-store story appeared in USA Today. Guess Corp. was “administratively dissolved” by North Carolina’s Secretary of State “for failure to file the required annual reports.” In early October, however, the necessary paperwork was submitted and the company reincorporated. Also, one ex-employees says she believes Guess is “active again,” hiring new employees to pick up where the others left off.
And so we wait. Guess Corp. has blown through our industry like a false hurricane: lots of headlines and curiosity, but no apparent damage. And, for now, no apparent answers as to what might become of this top-10 hopeful, the millionaires-only gas station and its enigmatic leader.