With a shaved head, tattoos and a penchant for speaking his mind, 32-year-old James Derlago may not be the first person you’d expect to find disclosing his innermost thoughts to 30 teary-eyed strangers in a self-help course. Yet, nearly two years ago, Derlago, a garage-door installer from Red Deer, Alta., spent a week at a community centre doing just that. He’d signed up for the free Personal Best (PB) course on the advice of his girlfriend, who’d tried it. Derlago figured he had nothing to lose: after the death of his mother the world had seemed to turn grey. At first Derlago was enthusiastic about the course. He was connecting with others and felt capable of turning a corner. He happily signed up for the second in the three-course series, this one with a $2,100 price tag. For a time, he joined the ranks of Personal Best’s passionate supporters, lauding it to friends.
Then a rare disorder took away his hearing. He couldn’t work, and suddenly money was tight. To his disappointment, he realized his new disability would prevent him from getting much out of the second course, so he sent PB a brief email explaining the situation and requesting a refund. What he assumed would be a minor administrative matter, Derlago says, morphed into months of hostile emails, an unresolved complaint to the Better Business Bureau, and an unrefunded $2,100 fee for a course he didn’t even take.
Derlago, dealing with a new disability and dramatic life changes, was stunned. “I look at this, and wow, if I heard this [from someone else], I’d be disgusted,” says Derlago. “This person lost his hearing, he’s now deaf, and they’re still keeping his money? That’s evil.” But people in the pull-yourself-together trade don’t always see a complaint as a simple business transaction. Derlago was soon deeper into this than he might have expected.
Personal Best is something of an Alberta phenomenon. Since its creation in the ’80s, it has served more than 30,000 people, most of them in that province, according to Jay Fiset, owner of Personal Best Seminars Inc. The Calgarian bought the non-profit’s rights and assets from its previous owners in 1991, when it was on the verge of financial collapse. In his 20s at the time, Fiset had taken three PB courses, which he says helped him reconnect with his high school sweetheart (now his wife) and rebuild family relationships. Determined to keep PB alive, he paid off its debts. Now a for-profit corporation, PB has grown steadily, expanding first in Edmonton and Red Deer and more recently in Grande Prairie last fall, despite the recession.
PB offers a variety of services—life coaching, couples’ weekends, and so on—but most clients start with the Personal Freedom training program, comprising three courses. Level one is typically offered for free, provided participants stay to complete the five-day, 40-hour course. Courses usually involve about 30 to 35 students and are based on what Fiset and Rae-ann Wood-Schatz, who owns the licence to market Personal Best in Alberta, describe as group exercises designed to help people apply the course material to their lives. There is a paid facilitator, and a loyal group of volunteers (all alumni) who do everything from cueing the music to cleaning up.
Like other businesses of its ilk—sometimes known as large group awareness trainings—Personal Best operates mostly by word of mouth. If you don’t know someone who’s taken the course, you’ve probably never heard of it. It does have a loyal following. On Facebook fan pages, enthusiasts like Roman Wasarab sing its praises. The Edmonton-based government employee heard about PB through his trainer at a time when he’d plateaued with his fitness plan. “I knew there was something in my head that was preventing me from moving on.” He took three PB courses. He lost about 90 lb., ran three triathlons in 2009 and organized a charity fundraiser—largely because of PB, he says. Financial administrator Lee Cardwell is only slightly less enthusiastic. She signed up at her son’s PB graduation ceremony and, despite initial skepticism, was won over. Recently she assisted in creating a non-profit to help teens financially so they can participate in PB.
Derlago was just as keen at first, but in retrospect he sees red flags. He recalls an exercise from the first course in which participants formed two parallel lines and were asked to interact with the person opposite: they could shake hands, maintain eye contact or hug. By the end, everyone was hugging. After the break, Fiset pitched PB 2. “You just stepped outside the box and you’re open,” says Derlago, who recalls that most signed a contract committing to pay about $2,100 for PB 2. Others signed up for multiple courses. “People were ready to sign over their houses.” (Fiset notes participants are only pitched twice, and this pitch was made before people went home for the night. “The course isn’t a marketing experience,” he says.)
Having been reassured by a verbal money-back guarantee, Derlago was shocked to later read the fine print and realize the refund clause on the contract he’d signed had a big caveat: to claim the refund you had to complete the course and write a letter within 10 days saying you weren’t satisfied. Without taking the course, all Derlago could do was to transfer the registration to another person. He says when he found out, he tried the first option, asking Wood-Schatz to enrol him in an upcoming course so he could complain and get his money back. But she refused, he says.
Wood-Schatz, for her part, maintains that was always an option, but she wanted to avoid it. “The energy that will bring to the rest of the group isn’t helpful,” she explains. She says she explored different options for accommodating Derlago, even suggesting an interpreter, as she has done for previous deaf students. But being newly deaf, he could neither sign nor read lips. In the end, there was no resolution, but Derlago managed to sell the course at a discount, taking a $500 loss. Wood-Schatz says she helped arrange this; Derlago says he found the buyer on Facebook.
Edmonton graphic designer Mike Smith (not his real name) also feels misled after eagerly signing a contract during the first course. “When I bought it they were adamant in telling me I could refund it, there’s a lot of fine print involved.” For Smith, it wasn’t worth his time to take the course and complain; instead, he too sold his registration, taking a $1,000 loss.
PB’s management sees the whole matter differently. They say the contract is meant to motivate people to complete the courses, which are emotionally challenging but rewarding if participants stick around. Holding clients to their contracts is a matter of encouraging personal accountability, a cornerstone of PB, says Fiset. It’s also just business. “We absolutely—and make no mistake about it—run a business. And our business relies upon the agreements that our participants [and] students make with us.”
Shortly after the ordeal, Derlago found out he was a good candidate for a cochlear operation and, after successful bilateral implants, he’s returned to work. While he’s moved on, he says PB has shaken his faith in people. “It’s been fun fighting with a millionaire over $2,100,” he quips. (He uses the word loosely: Fiset may or may not be a millionaire, though he does take pride in his classic-car collection.) Derlago also says Fiset, who facilitated the PB 1 course he took, often told the group he ran PB to help people, not make money. “More than once he said, ‘I don’t need your money’ . . . and I think to myself, ‘You said you don’t need my money, why are you trying so damn hard to hang on to it?’ ”
Despite the criticisms, Wood-Schatz remains unconcerned. She’s confident that PB is helping, not hurting, Albertans. The organization continues to receive abundant referrals from happy customers, after all, and business is good. “Unhappy people are usually the loudest, in my experience,” she says.