I like making a living and don't ask for much. Being a self-employed wood flooring contractor is rewarding, and the freedom that comes with it can't be beat. That being said, I'll never be able to special-order a brand-new Ferrari or be on a first-name basis with kings in foreign countries. I'm content to work hard, pay my bills and make a future for my family.
So, when a general contractor hires me, I pay particular attention to the big "when" I get paid more than the "how much." My experience is brutal, and I've learned a lot. I now keep GCs on a very short leash—the accounts receivable leash—and if they do not approve, I let them go.
When I got started in the flooring business, I began with more than adequate experience in the trade but zero experience on the business end. I've had really bad luck with GCs, not because of my work, which always impressed them, but because I've had to wait extended periods of time to get paid. At first, I thought this was normal. Many of my other contractor friends—no matter which trade—seemed to expect the usual long wait to get paid … and then it was only 90 percent of the invoice. The other 10 percent always came much, much later. What the ???
When I work for a homeowner they usually have the check written before I am done, even as I'm nearing the completion of the work. I like that! I finish at 3 p.m., and I am paid at 3:01 p.m. Not so with generals (in my experience).
So, here's the pivotal "straw that broke the camel's back" story as it relates to me learning all about getting paid in a timely manner.
Years ago I was hired by a general (name withheld) for some repair work at a local shopping mall. The following sequence of events is real:
1 - Three weeks after submitting my invoice to the superintendent who signed my contract, I called him and asked where my payment was. He explained he had trashed my invoice because he was "not the office" and I had to learn the way things are done.
2 - He gave me the contact info for the home office, and, after a laborious effort on my part, I finally managed to contact the One Person in their accounts payable department who would be handling my invoice. I emailed my invoice as requested at that time.
3 - A month later I called that One Person to ask where my payment was, and I was informed that my invoice was discarded upon receipt.
I asked why and was told it was written in the wrong font. Again, what the ??? It was explained to me as if I were an idiot that 12-point Times New Roman was worthless and not acceptable. I learned that 10-point Arial was the business norm, and I re-submitted my invoice.
4 - Another month went by and I called that One Person again … and was told that the One Person had gone on vacation—for two months. I had to start the process all over again with the new One Person who was filling in for them.
5 - That new One Person had a different font in mind, and by the time I pulled all the kinks out of what was required, the previous One Person came back from vacation. The previous One Person knew nothing of what I had been going through (and didn't care), and I had to start the whole process over again.
6 - Shortening this up, nine months went by before I received my payment.
After all this was behind me, I was contacted by a laborer looking for work, and I hired him. As he told me his story, I came to discover he was nearing the end of a bad streak. He had been a successful tile contractor and won the bid to install tile at a hotel for a large hotel chain, but the GC had not paid him for one-and-a-half years. He lost everything: his truck, his employees and his tools. He was living with his mother when I hired him. About two months after I hired him, he finally got his payment, and he immediately quit. His invoice was nearly $200,000.
Then I learned something that changed my life forever: There are laws in my state (California) that put a cap on how long it takes a GC to pay a subcontractor. The maximum is 10 days. After that, penalties are accrued, and the law accounts for how the penalties add up.
At first I was hesitant to use this "new" law (it was not new, but decades old), but when I did, I prevailed on my first try. I took a GC to court for making me wait 30 days to get paid. Not only did I win, I won everything. All the penalties, all the interest, all the court costs—and even my personal costs.
Of course I burnt a bridge, and that contractor won't ever hire me again, but, sorry, my family is more important. My business is more important. The GC doesn't care that I have a house payment once a month, or that I have vendors with 15-day or 30-day credit lines.
To date I have taken four GCs to court for slow pay and won every time. I really don't care if they ever call me again. I inform new generals who contact me that I expect to be paid ASAP, and I list my terms in my contract. This is all negotiable—that's the point. At first I was letting them dictate terms to me, and I thought that was just how it worked. Now I know better.
Some generals have an A/P process that is slow and won't seem to change. For them, I give two options:
1 - Pay within 10 days as per state law.
2 - I will provide financing. My finance charges are always written to my advantage, and so far every new general has paid me in less than 10 days' time.
In my tiny circle, I have planted both my feet down firmly and effected a change in the way subcontractors are treated. I have found that all 50 states have similar laws, so I would hope that all my contractor brothers and sisters would put their feet down, too, and stop accepting this slow-pay world we live in.