Two towing companies with very similar names are at war in St. Petersburg.
There's A-1 Recovery Inc., and then there's A-1 Recovery, a.k.a. Apex Towing and Recovery or Tokay Towing and Recovery Inc. Their names appear in tiny lettering at the end of 1 by 3 metal plates in parking lots across the city warning that "UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE TOWED."
In recent years, both companies have been in bitter lawsuits and counter lawsuits over who has the right to the "A-1" moniker. The suits are rife with accusations of unethical business practices, including scratching off or covering names on signs and using deceptive tactics to steal contracts.
In 2007, when the first suit was filed, a judge signed an injunction prohibiting one company from affiliating itself with the other. But the judge did not order either side to stop using the A-1 name.
While that case is pending, the animosity between the two companies has only served to generate confusion around town.
"I end up having to field all these calls to send people in the right direction all the time," said Phillip DeCelles, who owns A-1 Recovery and filed the 2007 lawsuit against his competitor. "It's irritating."
DeCelles says in court papers he bought the company from Jon De Inc. in July 2007. The firm, with offices at 2600 24th St. N, had been in business since 1999 and had 400 clients when DeCelles bought it. Today, it has 900 client agreements to tow vehicles away from private property, law enforcement and others. DeCelles, who worked in research and development for a medical company before he bought the business, declined to disclose his profits, but he said the business was lucrative.
The company he bought also had a former employee named Aaron Watkins.
In a court affidavit, Watkins says he started A-1 Recovery Inc. in 2006. He used the name because it was a fictitious name used by his former employer, who also used the name Tokay Towing.
"When I decided to go into business on my own, I selected the A-1 Recovery Inc. name because it was familiar and trusted," Watkins says in court papers.
Soon after he started the business, DeCelles claims in court papers, Watkins began approaching his customers to tell them that DeCelles was not authorized to tow cars with the A-1 name. DeCelles said Watkins has stolen dozens of contracts, and defaced or removed signs around town.
Watkins denies those claims in a countersuit, saying he never misled anyone, nor did he ever damage property. Watkins also charges that DeCelles' use of the A-1 name has damaged his own company's reputation.
Each also argues in court papers that the other did not properly register corporation names or licenses with the state. They are seeking unspecified damages.
DeCelles said he began to use the Apex name "to make it easier on the community." It now graces two of his three vehicles, though the A-1 Recovery name also appears on the trucks in smaller type. It is too problematic, though, to change the names on all of his contracts, DeCelles said.
Both owners agree that the towing business is a dirty one, even without the confusion caused by two companies sharing a name. It is a business that suffers from an eternal stigma, where most human interactions are unhappy ones. Lawsuits are common. So are screaming and crying people. Tow truck drivers, who work on commission, are regularly accused of being too quick to tow.
By state law, towing companies can charge no more than $100 plus mileage for towing your car. They can also charge a daily storage rate for keeping your vehicle. After about five weeks, they own your car.
In their defense, the two companies say they are providing a service that helps keep cities clean and orderly.
Neither Watkins nor DeCelles say they are ready to give up the fight to keep the A-1 name.
"We believe we are right," said Watkins.
"I enjoy this business way too much," said DeCelles.
Luis Perez can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2271.