What could have been a quiet retirement announcement for the smiling face of a Midtown institution became a story of family disputes, money and accusations of forgery instead.
When Preston Griffith, co-owner of Griffith Shell at the intersection of Ann and Government streets, announced this past weekend he’d be retiring from the service station amid the ongoing progression of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he did so in a letter that criticized his brother, Stephen, claiming mismanagement that has hurt the business “beyond repair.”
“For over 50 years, Griffith Service Station has survived a lot, including good and bad economic times, hurricanes we’ll always remember the names of, gasoline rationing, the Gulf oil spill and many other trials and tribulations,” Preston wrote in a post on the station’s Facebook page. “Unfortunately, Griffith Service Station could not survive the perfect storm of my ALS diagnosis, my brother Stephen’s mismanagement that pushed the business into the red beyond repair, his unwillingness to fix the business, or his efforts to force me out and replace Griffith Service Station with a new entity.”
While Preston’s announcement, at times, made it seem like the station would be closing upon his departure and, at the very least, he would not patronize the new business, Stephen refuted some of his brother’s claims in his own Facebook post.
“I will not take the path of disparaging others on social media; however, the era of Griffith Service Station has not come to an end,” Stephen wrote. “We’d like the community and our customers to know Griffith Shell is still doing business as usual and we are here to serve you for years to come.”
To clarify, the legal entity of Griffith Service Station will cease to exist with Preston’s departure, as Stephen will own the business.
A lawsuit filed in Mobile County Circuit Court by Preston’s son, Hunt Griffith, highlights a money issue looming over the business. The suit asks Judge Michael Windom to order Stephen to pay back three loans made by Hunt to the business, totaling roughly $220,000.
The suit contains evidence, including promissory notes the plaintiff claims are signed by Stephen that, in essence, guarantees the money will be paid back and offers an ownership stake in the business.
An answer to the lawsuit by attorneys for Stephen denies the allegations and claims at least one of the documents provided as evidence by Hunt was forged.
Andy Campbell, an attorney for Stephen, said the dispute occurred after Stephen paid off about $1 million in outstanding bank loans and took control of the business.
“Stephen had two options: to let the business collapse and die or save the business,” Campbell said. “He chose to save it. We wish all of this had not happened, but it wasn’t Stephen’s doing.”
Records indicate a court order gave Hunt $250,000 to resolve the lawsuit, but an arbitration hearing has been called for later this month to resolve issues between the Griffith brothers. The outstanding issue in the partially settled suit pertains to money owed by Preston to Stephen to help pay off the loan to Hunt, Campbell said.
In his initial Facebook post, Preston called his time at Griffith Service Station “an amazing journey.”
“There has been a Preston Griffith at the corner of Government and Ann since 1946,” he wrote. “My father, Preston Sr., started working there as a young boy before enlisting in the Marine Corps to serve [in the] Korean conflict. After recovering from wounds sustained in Korea, he returned again to work at the station and in 1958, he purchased [it] from J.L. Smith, an accomplishment for which I am immensely proud.”
Preston, the older of the brothers, was 1 year old when his father purchased the station. He would go on to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It has been a tremendous honor serving our community and developing friendships that span multiple generations of Mobilians,” Preston wrote. “I will treasure these friendships and the life moments we have shared forever.”
There are many things about the station Preston is proud of, according to an email message. During his time with the business, he mentioned several accolades, including being a top 2 percent Shell dealer, and a Reader’s Digest story that recognized employees of the station as honest after Preston didn’t charge an undercover reporter for work done on his vehicle.
“I loved going to work every day to serve my customers, friends and our community,” he wrote. “It never felt like a job to me. I served multiple generations of Mobilians from all parts of town and will always value their friendships and support for our business.”
Preston wrote he never expected to retire, but the ALS diagnosis forced his hand.
“After my diagnosis, I continued to go in for my customers, my friends and myself,” he wrote. “As my health worsened, I needed to step back and planned to retire months ago but still go in to see customers and friends, but this was delayed because of everything going with the station, and I had to continue working to protect the business, employees and customers.”
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