The Buffalo show was the last for the Get Motivated seminar series.
The Florida company that hired celebrities including Rudy Giuliani and Colin Powell for motivational events that filled arenas around the U.S. has closed, leaving lawsuits complaining of unpaid bills.
The closing came after the seminar failed to draw a door-buster crowd in Buffalo in June.
The seminars has drawn as many as 400,000 people a year, selling tickets starting at $1.95 for daylong pageants featuring fireworks and confetti. The seminars were actually vehicles for investment firms to sell courses in stock options and other trading tactics from the same stage where luminaries held forth, according to a Bloomberg News report.
Commercial presenters promoted annual returns of as much as 25 percent. A Michigan pastor said he lost $11,500 trading options after paying $12,000 for classes advertised at a Get Motivated seminar.
After the sparsely attended event in Buffalo, starring former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, comedian Bill Cosby and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak, Get Motivated canceled seminars scheduled for Michigan and Kentucky. The Tampa-based company shut down July 2, said Rick Nash, a spokesman. A sister firm that sold financial courses, WealthRock LLC of Draper, Utah, also terminated most of its staff, Nash said. The companies employed more than 250.
"It's a hard business to make a profit," said John LaRosa, research director at Marketdata Enterprises Inc. in Tampa. "We really haven't seen anybody else doing this kind of format, where you have six or more big-name people that require large speaking fees."
The Washington Speakers Bureau was owed $1.7 million for speeches made between November 2011 and February 2012, according to claims in legal documents. The bureau represents well-known people who spoke at the events, including Giuliani, a former New York mayor; Powell, a former U.S. secretary of state; and former first lady Laura Bush, who made their last Get Motivated appearances on Feb. 16. Michael Menchel, the bureau's senior vice president, declined to comment.
Speakers were supposed to earn $35,000 to $125,000 an appearance, according to the documents. Most speeches lasted 20 minutes. Giuliani netted $1.8 million from January 2006 to February 2007 for more than 20 Get Motivated events, according to disclosures he filed while running for president in 2008.
At Get Motivated's last stop in Buffalo on June 12, the 18,690-seat First Niagara Center was less than half full. Cosby, in a blue University at Buffalo sweatshirt and sweatpants, mixed one-liners with an appeal for seminargoers to listen to the speakers selling financial instruction.
"All these millionaires are coming up and telling you how to make it," he said. "Come on, understand what they're saying. Get up."
Until February, Get Motivated had a partnership with Investools, a unit of discount broker TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. that offered options training costing as much as $20,000. The Buffalo courses were to be taught by WealthRock, which is owned by Joseph Johnson, a resident of Apollo Beach, Fla., who bought Get Motivated in January.
Buffalo ticket holders were entered in a raffle, and Jerry Petrotto won the $10,000 grand prize. He said he hasn't received a check and the company hasn't returned calls or emails. A Get Motivated Facebook page still promotes him as the winner.
"It's just disappointing they disappear right after my moment," said Petrotto, 53, a design engineer from Williamsville.
Johnson is named in a lawsuit in Hillsborough County, Fla., alleging he defaulted on a $12 million loan from an investor that he used to buy and operate Get Motivated. Laurence Pino, a lawyer representing the investor, said he couldn't comment on the case. Companies that handled advertising, Web design and other services for the Tampa company have filed suits for allegedly unpaid bills.
Johnson is working with Get Motivated's founder, Peter Lowe, to raise money to "relaunch" the seminars, Nash said. He said debts incurred since Johnson took control will be repaid once funding is secured and events resume. Johnson is in negotiations to resolve the lawsuit, according to Nash.
"Joe's a really good guy and his intentions were the best," Nash said. Johnson didn't return telephone calls.
Peter Lowe, the son of a missionary, started Get Motivated 10 years ago, after the collapse of another celebrity seminar series he ran, called Success. Get Motivated also featured his wife, Tamara, a self-help book author who performed a rap about Jesus at the events. The Lowes divorced in April.