Some of you have heard about the "old school," and there are still some of us around who lived and worked with those principles. We didn't have all of those associate degrees, bachelor degrees, master's degrees or even doctorates in building construction. In fact, many of our industry's foremen and superintendents did not even have a high school diploma or a GED. They began as helpers and laborers and worked their way up through the ranks. They earned their credentials in what we call the "school of hard knocks."

That old school had some basic common sense principles that worked:

    A man is only as good as his word.

    Give an honest day's work and go home proud.

    When you make a mistake, you take the blame and pay the consequences.

    Finish your work, clean up your punch list and collect your money.

    Horsetrade as much as possible of the changes and extras, but document every "deal" to assure no one forgets what took place.

    When there is an extra that will be billed, be sure the person who authorized that work puts his signature on the work order. That eliminates all of the wasted time at your office trying to justify time, quantity or validity.

    Bill that extra work order now and get your money now -- not at the end of the project!

Most of these jobsite leaders were lackadaisical with their paperwork and some didn't do it at all. Their primary goal was to get the job done and get paid. It took a little bit of training and explanation that we couldn't get paid without it. Occasionally it also required a little discipline, but they would do it.

As you may have experienced, today's "new school" philosophy is "dazzle them with paperwork, and delay every payment as long as possible." We work for far too many people who have the power to authorize extra work, but do not honor their work when it is time to pay for it. They can spend months and even years disputing what was done, as well as what it should have cost.

In the meantime, you paid your wages the following week and your equipment and material invoices the following month. You cannot afford the negative cash flow nor is there any justification for it. When you do what you agreed to do, they should do exactly the same. That's why that old school worked so well for so long. Now when they make a mistake they hunt for the closest person involved to blame. Our answer for that is simple -- don't ever get close to them.

Common Sense

We may never revive that old school philosophy throughout this great construction industry, but you can certainly put those basic common sense principles back to work in your company. No one will deny that we have liars, cheaters and people who will not take the blame for their own mistakes. There is no doubt that you will cross paths with some of them, but you need to accept that relationship as your mistake and pay the consequences. Let me remind you of another old saying: "First time, shame on them. Second time, shame on me."

Fortunately, we have far more good people with integrity who are proud to honor their work and build lasting relationships. That goes for customers, designers, inspectors, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors and even construction managers. Naturally, they are searching for and hoping to find companies like yours that believe in and practice those old school principles.

A number of years ago some contractors became involved in total quality management, which was an attempt to revive our old school with a new notion called "partnering." They created offsite partnering meetings to help everyone involved get the job done as quickly as possible and create lasting "trust me" relationships. This worked quite effectively with the good guys, but unfortunately left the door wide open and gave more power to the bad guys who cannot be trusted.

You do not need a formal TQM program to partner with our industry. But there are some basic business practices that will help you find the good people and maintain enviable lasting relationships.

  • Before you sign a contract with a new customer, check out its reputation and especially the reputation of the individual you will be working for. Believe me, everyone has a reputation, good or bad. You can ask for names of other subs, ask your fellow association members and your suppliers. You can check their credit and ask about their litigation and arbitration cases.

  • Clarify your scope of work with "work included," and especially "work not included" to eliminate future misunderstanding. You can use all of your own negative history to create this list.

  • Always ask them to sign your contract. Most of the general contractors and construction managers will refuse and require you to sign their subcontract. By submitting your contract you open the door to negotiate a fair deal to both parties regarding: 1) prompt payment language and a late payment penalty; 2) front-end money on small contracts; 3) processing change orders and extra work orders to assure positive cash flow; 4) arbitration with a one-month time limit for any disputes or misunderstandings; and 5) eliminating all retention clauses.

  • Have your accountant and your company attorney check out the final agreement before you sign it. Do not ever sign one of those "pay when paid" contractors that will allow them to keep your money if their customer doesn't pay them.

  • When you come to an agreement and sign the contract, schedule a kick-off meeting to coordinate this work with your involved management team: 1) Value-engineer the job to hunt for that better way, and how much can be prefabbed or preassembled; 2) Establish a workable schedule with actual man-days for each task and feasible shipping dates for materials; 3) Create a "by who" and "by when" checklist for every task (submittals, purchases, permits, guarantees, etc.) that will be needed to complete this project and get your money.

  • Build a quality product that will eliminate any excuses for nonpayment. Use float time and pretrain your employees for every task on your man-days schedule requirements. Use moonlighters to supplement your workforce if you get behind.

  • Have your jobsite foreman prepunch his job and create a deficiency list to assure your final check comes as soon as the job is completed.

    I hope you can see how these steps are not negative to either party and should assure a long-term relationship with on-time cash flow. They will also help your customers get their money on time.

    Isn't that really what partnering should be?