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As feds demand Savtira fix employee back pay, questions about its survival

TAMPA — Consider this a cautionary tale.

A local company emerges on the promise of a new technology and lots of jobs. The company garners millions in government incentives and some big local industry awards.

Less than two years later, it can't pay its employees. The Labor Department is investigating. The whole mess is rekindling the troubled past of the company's founder and top executive. In response, he claims the company is "at war," fighting evil investors and even some ex-employees trying to bankrupt the company and then buy it on the cheap.

It wasn't supposed to be this way for Ybor City-based Savtira Corp.

On Monday, federal labor officials notified the company that it was violating fair labor standards. It faces potential fines and possible court action if it does not make good on back pay owed its employees.

Worse, Savtira's angry workers — some owed thousands of dollars — and the company's troubling performance are reviving concerns about past reported problems with several troubled or failed companies run by Savtira founder and chief executive officer Timothy Roberts.

At least three companies — Broadband Infrastructure Group in St. Louis and, later, Infinium Labs and Gamestreamer, both in Sarasota — faced lawsuits, a Securities and Exchange Commission sanction for a stock scheme or failure after raising tens of millions of dollars from investors.

In Tampa, leaders looked at Savtira as an emerging hotshot to celebrate. In November, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, the region's tech-promoting organization, named Savtira its "emerging technology company of the year." And Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the company "one of Tampa's success stories."

Savtira convinced state and local leaders of its bright future to win $2.65 million in incentives if it can create 265 jobs with high wages.

That now seems unlikely. Savtira's staff has diminished from more than 100 to 63 in recent months. Many have fled to other jobs and steadier paychecks or were callously fired by text message over a weekend.

Yet Savtira arrived with a big splash just as Tampa Bay's forlorn economy searched for positive business news. The company won converts — including many of the people it hired, lured by bigger salaries — a bit too quickly and without a closer look.

The company designs e-commerce platforms for businesses selling goods and digital products such as music over the Internet. It started missing payroll and caught the Department of Labor's attention in January. Now some employees are owed four to six weeks of back pay, and some managers who agreed to join at the start-up and work initially for 25 percent of their compensation (supposedly to be repaid when the company began to make money) have never been reimbursed.

At the heart of Savtira's puzzling trajectory is the mercurial Roberts. He's described as a consummate salesman who's bigger on hype than on substance when it comes to company products that work and funding sources that deliver.

In an interview Monday evening, Roberts, 42, painted a more positive image. He insisted Savtira will survive but acknowledged it's hitting a rough spot. And weak fundraising hurt cash flow, which in turn hurt the ability to meet payroll.

The real culprit, Roberts claimed, is a group of "greedy investors and some ex-employees" that are bad-mouthing Savtira, hurting its ability to raise new money and persuade customers to buy the company's products.

"It's been a lot of dirty tricks," Roberts said. He wouldn't identify his opponents but said the company is preparing to file suit in court. "It's a true battle. We are at war, and they are invading the castle."

Roberts also lamented the difficulty of building a start-up in Florida, as much as he appreciates the local support. He said, "There are times I kick myself and wish I had started the company in California," where investors are more plentiful and can simply hop into a car to visit the company.

On Monday, Roberts also commented on the Labor Department's demands in an email to Savtira staffers. "We have our hands forced and will have to involuntarily send everyone home until we complete our funding and catch up on the outstanding pay."

Roberts often sends emails to defend late payrolls that say something very similar to "the check is in the mail."

In one update, a Roberts email said that British investor "Sir Michael Marshall is making a wire for 500K today." In another, Roberts told staffers that "Terry/Joe/Todd are at the factoring company closing on 500K dollars right now. They are racing to get money in bank today and cut payroll."

For now, the tale of Savtira differs dramatically, whether Roberts or many of his distraught workers have the microphone. Can this company be saved?

Times staff writer Danny Valentine contributed to this column. Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8405.

As feds demand Savtira fix employee back pay, questions about its survival 04/16/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 12:20am]
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