INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR

Greg Podlucky had visions of taking LeNature’s to the top

Richard Gazarik
May 4, 2012

“The financial stability of LeNature’s has never been stronger,” he said, predicting the company would increase sales from $250 million a year to more than $1 billion in the next four years.

News of the federal probe sent shockwaves from Phoenix, where the other LeNature’s plant was shuttered, to Wall Street, where stunned investment bankers girded themselves for the potential loss of more than $400 million loaned to the company run by the 46-year-old product of Ligonier Valley High School and West Virginia University.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Some acquainted with Podlucky say they could have predicted his fall from grace.

“He’s very, very intelligent,” said Donald Paul, former sales manager at Jones Brewing Co. in Smithton, the company once operated by Podlucky and his late father, Gabriel.

Paul said Podlucky took a buyout of his interest in Jones Brewing — makers of Stoney’s beer — and used that money to establish LeNature’s in 1989.

Shortly after that, Paul left Jones Brewing to work with Podlucky.

But Paul said Podlucky ignored his advice to “start small.” Instead, he moved full tilt toward his dream of becoming a major player in the national beverage market.

It was a dream unrealized.

LeNature’s, which ranks 33rd out of the top 36 beverage producers in the nation, is considered a small player, according to an analysis by Standard & Poor’s.

“I saw him building and building, but I didn’t see enough trucks coming in and out. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know he wasn’t getting enough out of there to justify what he was spending,” Paul said. “He wanted to make millions overnight. He didn’t have the patience.”

John W. Higbee, chief financial officer at LeNature’s until he resigned in 2003, raised questions about Podlucky’s revenue figures with the board of directors, who authorized an internal investigation.

Higbee, of Wexford, said he even questioned whether several of LeNature’s supposed customers existed.

Two North Carolina firms that LeNature’s sold tea concentrate to didn’t exist at all,Higbee said. The address for one customer came back as a Colorado cleaning service, he said.

He said results of the internal probe were presented to the board of directors.

Board members did not respond to requests for interviews.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

The Podlucky family maintained a relatively low profile until 1988 when Greg Podlucky, a former certified public accountant, and his father purchased Jones Brewing for $3 million.

The elder Podlucky, a native of Johnstown, worked in advertising for Philip Morris Co. in the Washington, D.C., area before returning home to western Pennsylvania to begin assembling his menagerie of businesses, including five auto parts stores, various real estate interests and an alternative fuel operation.
After his death from cancer earlier this year, his wife said, “He was the ultimate optimist. His credo was, ‘I will fix it and make it work by tomorrow.'”

Along the way, Gabriel Podlucky, a deeply religious and devoted father of five sons, realized his share of heartache. A son, Eric, drowned. Another son, Patrick, was killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

But Gabriel Podlucky mustered his trademark optimism and pressed on, despite the crushing competition from beer-making corporate giants that made it tough for Jones Brewing to stay afloat.

Today, his wife continues to own the brewery.

Greg Podlucky appeared to be his father’s son in many ways.

Driven by ambition and committed to family, he and his wife, Karla, raised their four children as he set out to make his fortune. He talks freely about his “religious conversion” several years ago.

But In 2001, he was dealt a shattering blow when his only daughter, Melissa, 16, died in a traffic wreck in Ligonier.

Like his father, Greg Podlucky found a way to press on.

Podlucky established Missy’s Place Foundation, through which he expected to build a $20 million, super-sized, nondenominational church along Route 30 in Ligonier Township.

The imposing structure drew mixed reviews from area residents and township officials, but eventually gained the township’s stamp of approval. Work on the church has never started.

NO PLACE LIKE THIS HOME

Today, Podlucky lives in a hilltop home in a secluded area of Ligonier Township.

But his current home is dwarfed by Podlucky’s ongoing construction project a stone’s throw away.

For the last two years, work has taken place on a palatial, 25,000-square-foot sandstone home that eventually would have included an outdoor hockey rink, a swimming pool costing at least $7 million, an auditorium, and a carriage house with a five-car garage anda tunnel leading to the main house. The partially built house has seven fireplaces of finely cut limestone costing $70,000 each and millwork costing another $3.2 million. Podlucky insisted on the use of Honduran mahogany for window trim instead of African mahogany that would have saved him more than $800,000, according to Greg Coldwell, construction manager on the project.

“He wanted something unique and the best,” Coldwell said.

Coldwell said this project was to be the first of two houses at the site.

“It was my understanding he was going to build another on top of the hill,” he said. “This was a test house to make sure we got everything right.”

He said the building was supposed to be a “training center” for LeNature’s employees, but the architectural drawings list it as a private residence.

Coldwell said all construction has stopped.

A PICTURE OF THE MAN

Sandra Podlucky paints a picture of her son as a man of God who is “very generous with his time and talent.”

But those outside the family circle paint a much different picture.

His bad temper is legendary, according to former associates.

In November 2005, former LeNature’s transportation director Becky Muca was talking to a shipper about $3.5 million in unpaid bills when she commented that Podlucky never looked at a bill until it was at least six months overdue.

A few minutes later, a livid Podlucky appeared in her office to confront her with details about the call, fired her and escorted her out of the plant.

“He walked me to the curb,” Muca said.

She said Podlucky’s brother, Jonathan, chief operating officer at LeNature’s, would often step in after Greg publicly belittled and embarrassed workers.

Jonathan Podlucky did not respond to requests for an interview.

Frank Wolf, vice president of sales for A.J. Baynes Freight Co. in Buffalo, said he once called Podlucky to ask for payment of more than $600,000 owed to the freight company.

Wolf said Podulucky threatened not to pay him.

“He said to me, ‘I don’t need to talk with you because you’re nobody,'” Wolf said. “I said, ‘I’m somebody you owe $600,000.'”

Knowledge of Podlucky’s temper extended into the community.

Four years ago, a rider on a fox hunt at the nearby Rolling Rock Club strayed on to Podlucky’s property, according to Ligonier Township Police Chief Ron D’Orazio. An enraged Podlucky allegedly fired warning shots from a shotgun at the rider, D’Orazio said. Because the rider decided against filing a complaint, township police let the matter drop, the chief said.

Chief D’Orazio said it’s not unusual for Podlucky to show up to pay his local taxes at the township tax collector’s office with a cadre of bodyguards in tow.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The final chapter in the saga of Greg Podlucky and LeNature’s has yet to be written.

LeNature’s court-appointed custodian will report to bankruptcy court Nov. 29 on whether the plant can be saved.

In the meantime, Podlucky’s mother stands firmly behind her son.

She said stories written about him have been grossly unfair.

“You don’t know what’s going on for sure and who did what,” she said, her voice trailing off. “He’s a good kid.”