Former staff at an Osborne Village pet spa say fear, secrecy and bullying left them terrified to speak up about what they saw at the workplace — a business now part of an investigation into a prominent Winnipeg lawyer's immigration practice.
Last week, the Free Press reported Paul Hesse, a former Manitoba Liberal Party president, had been removed as a partner at Pitblado Law in early June, after the firm alleged he had referred some immigration clients to invest in businesses linked to his now-ex romantic partner, Patrick Maxwell.
On Friday, the Law Society of Manitoba confirmed it had opened an investigation.
Maxwell was the owner of White Lotus Pet Spa, a well-known pet groomer and daycare which shut down suddenly June 27. Staff were given less than a day's notice.
Within days, a number of other businesses linked to Maxwell — and run out of the same 130 Scott St. office — were also closed.
Now, former staff say there is much more behind the story of the pet spa's sudden demise.
The Free Press spoke to eight former White Lotus staff members in recent months. All described how Maxwell presided over a toxic workplace culture, rife with verbal abuse, controlling demands and intimidating behaviour that left many workers terrified of angering their boss.
"It was traumatizing," said one former staff member. "Absolutely horrific emotional and psychological abuse."
Neither Hesse or Maxwell responded to requests for comment.
All former staff interviewed by the Free Press described their growing unease over unusual business practices linked to foreign investors, and their discomfort at being asked to participate in some of these practices. These concerns led some to quit.
Employees felt pressured not to speak to each other outside of work or interact on social media, saying Maxwell would sometimes interrogate staff about their conversations, gossip about individual employees to other workers, and make cruel comments about staff (and even animals) at the business.
On various occasions, staff heard Maxwell call an African-Canadian employee a "monkey," and describe another worker as "legitimately retarded." He told groomer Chaniece Denielle, who is lesbian, to "not be so openly gay" at work.
"Honestly, it was worse than bullying," one former spa worker said. "He would personally ridicule or pick people apart to their face or behind their back. One staff member's dog passed away, and he said it was her fault, to the entire staff. He called a lot of people idiots or useless… but the next day, he would kind of pivot a bit."
In late 2017, Maxwell was irritated with the performance of a contractor who was working on the spa's new Donald Street location. The contractor had become ill and was diagnosed with cancer. In a text to a staff member seen by the Free Press, Maxwell called the man a "walking sack of tumours with a very short shelf life."
"Ugh people, die on your own fucking time," he wrote. "Not mine or my dollar... gross."
Many said they were afraid to tell anyone about their experiences with Maxwell.
All White Lotus staff were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement — one that forbade them from, among other things, discussing anything to do with the business or Maxwell to anyone without their boss's consent.
In the days since the spa's closure, some former staff expressed they are still too afraid to speak publicly.
"I always felt like I was being watched," said Hannah Guttormson, who worked at White Lotus between December 2017 and October 2018. "He was so controlling... He takes pride in knocking people down, then he'll build you up and make you feel great, and then he'll take the opportunity to make you crash."
Maxwell often hired young workers on the back of grandiose promises, such as a future six-figure salary. Once they took the job, former staff said, they quickly discovered the owner was prone to outbursts of anger, often conducted in lengthy barrages of text messages, and unpredictable swings of favouritism and harassment.
"The way it worked was he would pick a target, and he would be all up in their gears for a long period of time," one said. "It started to get to paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of texts. It would be until 12 a.m. in the morning. It was very stressful."
Maxwell often appeared intensely focused on employees' interactions with each other, including during their personal time. Staff who worked out of the Scott Street office were discouraged from interacting with colleagues at the spa, and Maxwell appeared to monitor their personal social media accounts for compliance.
The business owner was also focused on staff relationships with ex-employees he disliked. In October 2018, Maxwell aggressively interrogated Guttormson via text about why an Instagram account she had set up for her fitness business had briefly followed an account belonging to a former White Lotus employee.
"I do not understand how anyone could think it is a good decision to follow her on social media or remain in contact with her and jeopardize their job by breaching their NDA this way — Especially with HER," Maxwell wrote, in a series of lengthy texts sent one afternoon.
"It leaves me so beyond baffled and shocked. I essentially take it as a personal insult to continue to pay a person who would do this."
When Guttormson replied she had unfollowed the ex-employee's account several days prior, Maxwell accused her of being "panicked," and berated her for "lies" and what he called "an effort to skirt ownership/accountability."
Guttormson then informed him she was resigning from White Lotus. An hour later, she received an email from Hesse stating she was being terminated immediately for breaching the NDA, as well as for "lying to the owner."
"No resignation by you is possible given this notice," it stated.
After Guttormson was fired, store managers took remaining staff members aside. They allegedly ordered them to unfollow Guttormson on social media and delete her number from their phones on the spot, while managers watched.
Outside the insults and controlling behaviour, former staff said they were uncomfortable with some of the business practices they observed at White Lotus and other businesses linked to Maxwell and Hesse.
Maxwell was prone to extravagant spending. He bought expensive artwork for the spa's entrance and took some White Lotus employees on lavish group trips, including a pricey Las Vegas vacation, winery tours by his house in Kelowna, B.C., and a three-week-long Hawaiian getaway that featured a rented helicopter.
The spending, many staff said, seemed at odds with the business's revenue. The spa booked an average of 10 dog grooming appointments a day, at around $100 per dog. On weekend days, the spa typically booked just four or five dogs — not enough, on many days, to even cover staff wages.
Maxwell would sometimes tell staff he was expecting large sums of money from new investors, up to several hundred thousand dollars. He told some he had funded the Donald Street expansion through Chinese investors.
In late 2017 or early 2018, a White Lotus manager introduced staff to a middle-aged man and said if anyone asked, they should say he was the spa's new general manager. The man was from China and, on his occasional visits to the spa, did not appear to do any work nor interact with spa staff.
He would instead spend hours napping in the white reception area chairs or browsing social media. Every two weeks, he would collect a paycheque from the same drawer as other workers' cheques. Staff observed other paycheques set aside for individuals whom they did not see doing any work at the spa.
There were other concerning incidents. More than once, Hesse approached some workers and asked them to sign articles of incorporation for a new business, of which the majority share would be held by a foreign investor.
Some employees were asked to help launch websites for what one characterized as "fake businesses," including a housecleaning service and a vacation property rental business. At least some of these entities were partly owned by or sold to foreign investors, and did not have outside clients or appear to generate any income.
"(Patrick Maxwell) was so controlling... He takes pride in knocking people down, then he'll build you up and make you feel great, and then he'll take the opportunity to make you crash." - Hannah Guttormson
Given these troubles, one former staff member was not surprised to learn the spa business had collapsed.
"I got out of there because it was personally taking a big toll on me, it was stressful and I was miserable," the ex-employee said. "One, knowing they ran a huge deficit; two, the lack of business… it was inevitable that it was going to crash."
Even after White Lotus closed, Maxwell continued to berate staff. On June 28, one employee texted Maxwell asking for an explanation for the spa's sudden closure. The owner responded with an angry 600-word text message which was rife with insults, telling him to "never act like that again."
"How DARE YOU send me such filth in a message," he wrote, in a copy of the text obtained by the Free Press.
"You do know why you could not message me like a semi-intelligent, respectful, adult with a visible demonstration of common sense...??" Maxwell wrote. "Because you only care about yourself, you are disgustingly entitled and you think the entire world revolves around you..."
He then admonished them for complaining about the "inconsequential" problem of being laid off, a problem which, Maxwell wrote, could be "easily solved by using the skills I PROVIDED TO YOU (free of charge)." He set about berating the former employee's work ethic.
The only reason the worker hadn't been fired, he wrote, was "because of ME and my faith in you to rise above it."
Today, many former staff say they still live in fear of Maxwell. Some report lasting mental health impacts from their time at White Lotus, and hope speaking up will prevent this happening to other workers in the future.
"The important thing is not just what he did, but the effect and trauma it can cause people," one former worker said. "People have rights, and they should not be scared to stand up for themselves, which I think most of us were."