Nepotism was hardwired into the culture. The company was family, every wedding, birth, confirmation, and graduation a cause for shared celebration.
That was Sho-Aids, in Sharon Hill, in southeastern Delaware County, where loyalty is a staple of corporate life. Andrew Codamo Sr., the chief executive officer, bought the New York trade-show service company in 1960, expanded it, and moved it to Pennsylvania. Three of his relatives work there.
Then a trusted payroll clerk, Laura Rogers-Fischer, was found to have cleverly embezzled $600,000 over six years.
Unfortunately for businesses, such crimes are all too common. In a 2011 study, the business-research firm Marquet International documented about 1,500 incidents in the United States over four years, with estimated losses of $1.1 billion; Pennsylvania was a national leader.
But the theft at Sho-Aids is a case study in the concussive impacts embezzlement can have on a tight-knit small business, where it's not only a crime, but an act of betrayal, and what companies have to do to recover.
"We were worried it was going to shut us down," said Joseph D. Onorato, president of show services.
In January, Rogers-Fisher pleaded guilty to theft, conspiracy, and forgery, was sentenced to two to four years in state prison. An outside accomplice, Robert C. Morgan, was sentenced to one to two years.
After the shock, denial, embarrassment, and anger wore off, company managers were confronted with picking up the pieces.
They turned to their staff. "It really involved sacrifice on everyone's part," said John Bambach, chief operating officer. "People found out how to do things faster. You find out how to work smarter."
Sho-Aids has 34 full-time employees, including office staff, carpenters, and graphic designers, and annual revenue of $16 million to $18 million. The part-time labor force can be as large as 400, depending on the number of trade shows.
The company provides just about anything exhibitors need for convention booths: carpets, logos, custom-cut signs, drapes, tables, chairs, LED monitors, floral arrangements, and tchotchkes. If a client needs a waterfall, Sho-Aids employees can build one. The Sharon Hill facility has a 68,000-square-foot warehouse with a 28-foot ceiling and is filled with crates of exhibits and supplies.
The company has served Fortune 500 clients at the National Hardware Show in Chicago, the American Cardiology Conference in San Francisco, and the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association in San Antonio.
But the embezzlement episode seriously endangered the company's future.
Sho-Aids has since overhauled its compliance system. Rogers-Fisher had little to no oversight. Now, there are checks and double-checks by various employees to prevent missteps.
The company appears to be making the right moves, said Luke Scheuer, assistant professor of law at Widener University.
Any business that has been victimized by embezzlement needs to address the problem "through a mixture of public relations, legal, and institutional responses," Scheuer said.
He said companies should have someone on their boards with a financial background to help oversee the books. Hiring an outside auditor also would help catch most improprieties, he added.
Scheuer said it was important for businesses to convince clients that such thefts were isolated incidents and that steps were taken to prevent them in the future.
After the theft was discovered, Sho-Aids hired John Bambach Jr. as chief operating officer and David Muir, chief financial officer, as consultants. The two became full-time employees in August.
"It surprised me how passionate the employees are," Bambach said. He said he had reconsidered his opposition to nepotism. In this case, he said, it helped generate a sense of caring for the company that kept employees from looking for work elsewhere, he said. "They expect to be working here," he said.
Sho-Aids has grown stronger since the thefts, Kathy Moritz, a payroll manager, said.
"Now we have a new life, a new beginning."
at 610-313-8111, mschaefer@ phillynews.com, or follow @MariSchaefer on Twitter.