More than a dozen former employees of Rob Roche, a Canadian businessman with a controversial past, say they are owed thousands in wages. It is the latest issue for a man with a globe-spanning pattern of debt and deceit that stretches back 30 years, a CBC News investigation has learned.
The 63-year-old Roche has made a career out of taking control of struggling businesses and stripping their assets, earning himself the nickname “The Liquidator,” after he shut down a chain of 29 discount stores in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the mid-1990s, throwing 400 people out of work.
Court records and media coverage from B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, the U.K., France and Germany also show a trail of unpaid wages and debts, and reveal that over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, Roche was convicted of fraud on four different occasions, serving more than a year in jail.
The latest controversy surrounds Roche’s current venture, Viridis AntisepticPro, a Toronto-based reseller of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and cleaning supplies. Former workers say turnover was high and getting paid was difficult. Paydays were frequently missed, and when remuneration did come, it was in the form of e-transfers from Roche’s personal email, often for only a portion of what was owed.
“I just wanted to be paid. All of us just wanted to be paid,” said Hayley O’Brien, who managed the company’s social media accounts and helped recruit new employees during the spring and summer of 2021. “I think a lot of us pushed some of the behaviour aside because we were desperate for a job.”
O’Brien, 23, estimates she is owed at least $1,500, but has found it hard to arrive at an exact figure since the company didn’t provide pay stubs or a record of employment after she quit.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour confirmed it has logged 14 wage complaints against the company since April 2021, and has so far issued 12 payment orders. One case was dropped and another remains under investigation.
Kevin Li, a web developer who built the company’s site and managed its IT, said he was paid for only half of the eight weeks he worked for Roche, estimating he is owed between $3,000 and $4,000. It was the 26-year-old’s second post-university job.
“For a new graduate, it was quite a big situation, and without any warning.… I had trouble paying my rent,” said Li. “And for my colleagues who had families, it was an even bigger challenge.”
Li said he kept pressing Roche for payment, only to be put off with excuses about paperwork and banking snafus. When he persisted, he was abruptly fired.
After CBC News first approached Roche for comment in early December, he filed a $164,000 defamation and breach of contract suit against O’Brien in Ontario Superior Court. She has engaged a lawyer and is seeking to have the case dropped.
The payment issues arose at a time when AntisepticPro and other Roche-owned companies were receiving financial support from the provincial and federal governments to the tune of at least $85,000. New hires were routinely instructed to apply for wage subsidies from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Skills and Training Development via a private employment services firm, VPI Working Solutions, according to employees who spoke to CBC News.
AntisepticPro confirmed it received $16,000 in grants for seven employees.
Another company, Viridis Property Management Corp., received a $20,000 Ontario COVID-19 small business grant, while a third firm, Beagle AI Inc., which offers artificial intelligence software that scans legal documents for potential problems, appears to have received Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) support throughout the pandemic.
All these firms share the same modest premises in an industrial park adjacent to Toronto’s Pearson airport.
Roche responds via video
Roche declined multiple requests for an interview over a period of several weeks, although he ultimately responded to some of the written questions submitted to him and provided a brief video statement.
The two-minute video features Roche sitting in a boardroom, wearing a mask, glasses and backward hat, flanked by two people identified as current employees. A bottle of hand sanitizer and a stuffed toy beagle are on the table, while the walls are decorated with inspirational posters preaching a positive attitude and integrity in business.
“We are responding today to claims from a small group of disgruntled employees that are completely baseless and have zero merit, with reference to unpaid wages from July to September of last year,” Roche says in the video.
He then outlines a $9,000 repayment agreement that he says he will soon conclude with the Ontario Ministry of Finance.
WATCH | Rob Roche responds to allegations of missing wages:
Roche further says he has asked the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to audit Beagle AI’s books “to prove our transparency and to prove that every dollar received under the wage subsidy program was paid out as wages.”
Roche did not respond to requests for documentation to support his repayment agreement and audit claims.
The Ontario Finance Ministry, which enforces payment orders, said it won’t discuss the specifics of the case, and to date, none of the affected employees have been informed of a deal. CRA also declined comment, citing taxpayer confidentiality.
Beagle AI was a highly touted startup when it was founded in 2014 by a University of Toronto computer science professor. But the company’s allure quickly faded and it was insolvent by the time Roche took control in the summer of 2019.
Beagle’s corporate footprint has been hard to discern; for a period last fall, the company didn’t even have a website. A search of LinkedIn reveals one profile of a current employee — a “casual, on-call” web developer. When asked, former AntisepticPro employees recalled there being at most, one or two Beagle staff in the office and scant corporate activity.
All of which raises questions about how the company qualified for CEWS payouts.
Roche declined to respond to questions about the firm, calling the number of current employees a “private matter.”
But internal documents obtained by CBC News show Beagle AI received at least $48,000 in CEWS subsidies, with the company claiming to have suffered a 70 per cent revenue drop while employing 45 people this past October.
String of shuttered businesses
Roche appears to have begun his career in Montreal, coming to prominence in the early ’90s in British Columbia and Ontario after buying and shuttering two different home decorating retail chains, putting dozens of people out of work.
Deborah Faurot is one of more than a half-dozen former employees of Home Products Inc. who filed court claims in B.C. against Roche for unpaid wages. The former advertising manager says she still hasn’t seen a penny of the $6,750 her ex-employer was ordered to pay in 1995.
“He’s alive, without a conscience,” she said from her home in Kelowna. “We had about 17 stores across Canada. This Roche guy came in, bought up the company one day, and went bankrupt the next.”
The story was then repeated on a grander scale in 1995, with the Winnipeg-based Stylerite chain of discount stores.
CBC News asked Roche about his early investments and the still-unpaid workers. “Both companies were financially distressed before my involvement, no further comment,” he wrote.
After his release from jail in 2001, Roche re-emerged in Europe in the late 2000s, first taking the helm of a troubled U.K. wine-marketing firm, then a series of failing pulp and paper businesses in France, Belgium and Germany. There were complaints of unpaid wages and bills in the U.K.
In June 2010, just as his German firm declared insolvency, Roche staged a brief push to buy a defunct paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. But the tentative deal fell apart over his demands for $52 million in loans and guarantees from the provincial government.
In the years since, lawsuits and online consumer reviews link Roche to a wide variety of businesses in Ontario, including a trucking firm, a logistics company, a print shop, a vocal coaching service, a book publisher, environmental consulting, and Viagra sales from his Bay Street condo.
Among his other sidelines at present are an immigration consulting business.
Plans to open a private high school for overseas students on a defunct Royal Canadian Air Force training base near Exeter, Ont., appear to have been dealt a setback by COVID-19 restrictions and an ongoing lawsuit with the property’s former owner.
Roche is also facing a court action from the Law Society of Ontario over public complaints that he has been providing legal services without professional qualifications.
In response to questions about his past legal troubles, Roche had little to say beyond asserting that in regards to two of his four fraud convictions — a 1991 Quebec case and one in Ontario in 2001 — “there was no financial loss at all.”
Former AntisepticPro employees O’Brien and Li both told CBC News they were distressed to learn of Roche’s checkered past.
“It makes me upset that so many people have been taken advantage of and nothing’s really come of it,” said O’Brien. “There’s no consequences and there hasn’t really been an end to his behaviour.”
However, Roche does have his defenders.
In the video he submitted to CBC News, a masked woman identified only as Mary, the operations manager, is asked if Roche is a “good CEO” by an off-camera voice.
“Yes, Rob is a great manager, leader and we have amazing organizational skills within our company,” she replies, appearing to read her answer off a sheet of paper on the table before her.
The other person the video — identified as Fidel Hamdan, an investor and shareholder — then chimes in with his perspective.
“I know the words can describe how good Rob is with us and how honest and trustworthy,” he says.
Jonathon Gatehouse can be contacted via email at email@example.com, or reached via the CBC’s digitally encrypted Securedrop system.