In colonial times, men were men.

They hunted animals and dueled at dawn. They went weeks without showering. They lived for days off the land and spent their nights drinking whiskey.

I am not one of those men.

I hunt down good sushi bars and pull hamstrings playing softball on Sunday mornings. I never go more than a few days without showering. (Note to readers: Stay away from my house on the weekends.) I drink wine out of a box. I drive a minivan.

Mike Smaleren, my penny-pinching friend, however, is more of a man than me. He owns a 40-person carpentry company, works both inside and outside in bad weather, sometimes chews tobacco and drives a pickup truck. Whereas I'm afraid of what will happen if I mix red and white wine, Mike is fearless - especially when it comes to his work.

Not all contractors are fearless like Fearless Mike. (Actually, I don't call him this name to his face because I'm afraid he'll punch me.)

For example, there's a lawsuit (www.philly.com/philly/news/local/42113052.html) currently making its way through the federal and state court systems where a bunch of contractors are suing a general contractor who is, in turn, suing a steakhouse owner. No, it's not about a bad porterhouse. You guessed it: It's about money. Unpaid money to be more exact. Seems like the contractors - painters, electricians and the like - did work for the general contractor and didn't get paid. And it seems like the general contractor didn't get paid by the steakhouse chain. Seems like a familiar story.

A total mess.

Haven't we learned? Why are contractors still chasing down money from their customers? People have been building stuff for thousands of years. Surely someone's figured out a way to just get paid on time and avoid these problems. Right?

Well, Fearless Mike has. Why? Because Fearless Mike, a true penny-pincher, has three principles when it comes to a job: Any changes get written up, payments need to be current and, most important, if things get out of the comfort zone, he walks.

The story behind the steakhouse lawsuit is that the contractors were forced to do a ton of work on a very short timetable. The job was a moving target. Sometimes there were written change orders. Other times, there weren't. The project managers were forced into doing more work with promises of payment. They were swept up into the project.

"Not my game," says Fearless Mike.

Fearless Mike doesn't like to do anything out of contract. If his men are asked to perform additional services, then he wants a written change order. "This is my protection," he says. And it's not such an unreasonable request. If a customer wants more work done, then Fearless Mike just likes to put it all in writing. Simple.

Fearless Mike also wants to see the cash. Most of his projects are done by milestone, or payment date. As long as he delivers what he promised, he expects payment to be made. "I'm not into giving a restaurant chain a line of credit," he says. "That's what banks are for." Easier said than done? Well, this is why Fearless Mike is so fearless - because Fearless Mike isn't afraid to stop.

"I know what my limits are," he says. "And if I reach that limit, I stop." By limits, Fearless Mike knows what his exposure is. He knows just how much he's willing to risk on a job, financially that is, before he's had his fill. Mike is willing to put a few bucks out there in payroll and materials. But if he's not getting money in soon enough, he's ready and willing to stop everything in its tracks and back away.

This takes a lot of courage. Walking away from a big job, particularly in a recession, is a bold thing to do. Some would say a little crazy. But Fearless Mike has a lot of confidence. Oh, and he also has some cash in the bank, too. "It's amazing how you can make these decisions when you know you've got that cushion," he says. Companies that are desperate for work may stretch themselves too far to please their customers. That may be OK some of the time. But in the steakhouse situation, this is not a good thing at all.

Does this make some people angry? Sometimes. Does he lose jobs? Occasionally. "But at least I'm not out suing people, like those poor knuckleheads and that steakhouse owner," he says.

Fearless Mike's words, not mine.

My words would be more harsh.

Fearless Mike has done good jobs for good people. He's sitting on cash and his business is financially sound. Like any good penny-pincher, he has no intention of rocking that boat just because of someone else's disorganization.

I'm too old to change certain things. I like to drink white wine. I'll never drive a pickup truck. And chewing tobacco just makes me ill.

But when it comes to getting paid on a future job, I'm going to take the advice of my penny-pinching friend, Fearless Mike. And I'll be prepared to walk away from projects that are too risky to keep working.

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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