W hat if a company were to lay off its local workforce, relocate to a 1960s-style hotel in the Midwest and hire workers who are willing to live on-site for room, board and a stipend?
That is what several employees of the Colorado Springs-based Maharishi Ayur-veda Products International, Inc. are pondering as their possible job replacements while management of the company remains tightlipped over the future of the company.
Housed in a corporate park off Garden of the Gods Road, Maharishi sells Indian-made health products like Sniffle Free Tea and Study Power "attention-enhancing" herbal tablets through catalogs and on its Web site, at www.mapi.com. Its most popular product, Amrit Kalash, is an herbal pill that promotes "overall health and longevity."
In Colorado Springs since 1994, Maharishi is one of more than a dozen companies affiliated with the Netherlands-based Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one-time guru to The Beatles and Mia Farrow. Now 86, the yogi is the founder of an international movement known as TM, or transcendental meditation. According to the United Kingdom's The Guardian newspaper, his combined real-estate and business holdings total out at $3.6 billion.
At the core of TM's beliefs is that groups of meditators have the power to reduce levels of violence within cities and around the globe.
In April, Maharishi executive vice president Steve Barthe announced to the company's 60 employees that, due to the sluggish economy, 10 of them would be laid off. The remaining 50 workers would face a 10 percent cut in pay, he said.
In addition, Barthe said the company was considering relocating, possibly to Avon Lake, Ohio.
At the time, Barthe said the move was only a possibility, however, the company's current spring catalog includes an Avon Lake return address -- specifically, the Independent has learned, that of the Aqua Marine Hotel and Resort, which is owned by the Maharishi Spiritual University.
But not everyone is buying Barthe's rationale.
Former employee Marcia White, who worked in the company's finance department for three years until she was laid off earlier this month, claims the company's sales were "doing just fine."
100 percent price increases
In addition to the layoffs and the possible move, the company also announced in April plans to raise the prices on its products dramatically -- by between 30 percent and 100 percent. And, it planned to end its discounts to cancer patients and seniors.
The news of the price jumps sent many distributors and retailers reeling. And, the plan to cut off cancer and senior discounts left many critics with their tongues wagging: after all, the company is supposed to represent compassion and a commitment to internal well-being.
Maharishi's largest retailer, Ashok Lodha, who owns the SKSM health-food store in the Washington D.C. suburb of Silver Springs, Md., says he has not placed any new orders since the company ended its discounts to wholesalers.
Pointing out that Maharashi's Blissful Sleep tablets alone shot up from $19.95 to $39.95 a bottle, Lodha said he may have to sell his own business as a result of the company's price hikes.
Lodha is not the only retailer to notice the price changes.
"Such a significant price increase will likely cause many of the brand's existing customers to reassess the value of the product they purchase," said Greg Leonard, corporate VP of trade relations for Tree of Life, Inc., a health food distributor based in Gainesville, Fla. "For some consumers, this will price the products beyond their reach."
Hotel dwellers wanted
In an interview, Barthe rejected reports from former employees that the company's financial woes were overstated and denied that the company has firm plans to move.
However, recent developments suggest otherwise. In May, board members Russ and Susan Guest, the company's head of finance, relocated from the Springs to the Aqua Marine Hotel in Avon Lake, Ohio. Reached there, Guest declined to comment on whether the Springs facility would close.
"Our task was to come here and get a shipping area set up so that we could ship to states surrounding Ohio," Guest said.
In addition, a "help wanted" flier obtained by the Independent was found posted in a health food store in Fairfield, Iowa, the American headquarters of the transcendental meditation movement and home to more than a dozen Maharishi-affiliated schools and businesses. The advertisements were seeking employees for several positions at the Avon Lake hotel for room, board and stipend.
Guest, however, claimed to be unaware that the company was placing help wanted ads for Avon Lake staff.
In addition, a mid-level manager in Colorado Springs who asked not to be identified says that mail orders for products are currently being sent to Ohio and shipped via UPS back to Colorado Springs.
All of these developments do not sit well for many employees, who aren't sure what will transpire next.
"The ideas of sharing information and knowledge was never a strong suit [with the company]," said Gerald Albrent, a former member of the Maharishi board of directors. "I would be the lone guy on the board saying, 'We should tell the staff.' And they'd say, 'No, we don't have to tell anyone.'"
-- John Dicker