A Smithfield businessman and farmer is suing an international tobacco corporation, alleging the company stole his idea for processing sweet potatoes.
W. Frank Lee is suing Universal Corp. and subsidiary Universal Leaf North America U.S. Inc., “the world’s leading leaf tobacco merchant and processor,” according to the company’s website. Universal Corp. does business in more than 30 countries and employs more than 24,000 people worldwide.
Lee’s complaint claims the Richmond, Va.-based company stole and used his ideas, confidential information and trade secrets for processing sweet potatoes for sale.
Lee’s attorney, Shanahan Law Group in Raleigh, filed the complaint March 23 in Johnston County Superior Court. It names as defendants Universal Corp., Universal Leaf North America U.S., Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients, Kimber & Co. and individuals John W. Kimber, Nathan Holleman and Charles F. Fuller.
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The complaint alleges that in 2011, after a trip to China, Lee came up with the idea to produce dehydrated sweet potatoes as a food ingredient. He worked independently for more than a year to develop the idea into a business, hiring Kimber, Holleman, Kimber & Co. and Fuller to act as consultants, perform research and help with development, according to the complaint.
Seeking a funding partner, Lee met with Clay Frazier, president of Universal Leaf, and, according to the suit, they created a partnership to develop Lee’s idea into a company. Lee relied on Frazier’s promises on behalf of Universal and worked with Frazier through 2013, disclosing trade secrets, confidential information and the business plan for Lee’s sweet potato company, according to the complaint.
Despite the partnership, Universal Corp. and Universal Leaf ousted Lee from the venture, the complaint claims. The companies then used Lee’s confidential information and trade secrets without giving him credit or compensation, the complaint adds.
The defendants also deceived Lee into providing additional information and expertise, which they used to found Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients in March 2014, the complaint claims. CIFI has since opened a state-of-the-art facility in Nashville using Lee’s idea, the complaint says.
“The complaint demonstrates that Frank Lee was totally taken advantage of by his trusted advisers and by Universal,” said Lee’s lawyer, Kieran Shanahan. “We look forward to presenting the facts of this most egregious matter to the good people of Johnston County.”
By press time, an attorney for Universal Corp. had not returned a phone call seeking comment.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett