Dealing with Commercial Headaches: Win Small or Lose Big
The inept architect. Even talented, well-trained architects make mistakes. In one memorable case, James, the architect, inadvertently selected an Axminster carpet with a long delivery time for a high-profile fast track project. When this was gently called to his attention, he angrily responded, “You’re just trying to change the spec.” Yes, he was right, but I had the best of reasons: a delivery time inconsistent with the short duration delivery date. Having the lobby space completed on time was a lot more importantto the owner than having an Axminster. A custom pattern, running line tufted carpet was substituted.
The key in this case was to avoid attacking the spec. James got to save face “because of potential production delays” on the original selection. He actually gained stature with his efficient handling of the change. Everyone won.
The volatile field supervisor. Bud was a loud, gruff project supervisor with few social graces who believed the jobsite was hiskingdom to be ruled with an iron hand. “Why aren’t you done with this job yet?” he snarled. I could feel my blood pressure going up. “Our pace of installation has slowed to a crawl becauseother trades are in the way,” I said. Rather than argue, though, I offered to meet Bud and our project manager on site.
When we walked the areas, Bud reluctantlyadmitted that the electricians and painters mayhave been part of the problem. “You should have anticipated this, so now you had better damn well double up your crew and get done on time.” By this time, I was gritting my teeth. Finally I looked him in the eye and said, “Okay, Bud, here’s what I’ll do: We’ll pull the crew at the end of the day, today; when we come back. I’ll even add to the crew. But in return,I have to have a cleared area free of other trades. When can you make that happen?” Bud waved his hand dismissively and said, “I’ll have all the areas open by Thursday, so you just better be here.”
My project manager went by late on Wednesday and walked the job with Bud to make sure all was ready for us. He did what he said and so did we, finishing on schedule.
The check that didn’t arrive. Angie got a heads-up that there might be a problem with the timing on payment from the general contractor on our latest payment requisition. “How much is payment, Angie, and how much as we owed?” I asked. “$141,000 including change orders,” was her response. We had finished the installation the previous month.
We quickly reviewed the entire project, and although the GC had always been a prompt payer, we were at the end of the project. So I put a call into the GC’s project manager, Jeff, and asked, “Hey, what’s up with payment of our July requisition, Jeff? I understand there will be a ‘timing issue.’” Jeff said, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. We’ve been short-paid by the owner who has had his draw cut by the bank. I’m sureit will be straightened out soon; maybe as early as next month.”
“Well, how much of this month’s billing might we expect?” I asked. Jeff laconically replied, “About 20% if all goes well.” With a strangled gasp, I said, “Jeff, we were really counting on that money to pay off our bill for materials that’s due. Is there anything you can do on this?” “No, it’s out of my hands,” Jeff said.
Something didn’t smell quite right. We checked with other subcontractors and everyone was being cut back on payment. With the amount of money involved, we contacted our attorney. On our behalf, he contacted the GC’s front office. Then the real storybegan to emerge: It wasn’t a draw cutby the bank, but rather a dispute with the owner’s financing for the project. It was unlikely to change except through protracted litigation.
Our attorney’s advice was to file a notice of lien with the owner so as to try and compel a settlement with us. “You understand, though, you will notget all of your money,” he said. “It just isn’t there.” Over the next week our attorney negotiated a settlement of 75% of the balance of funds due to us in return for a final release of lien. “That’s the most you’ll get and youare at the head of line.” A 25% write off on the balance duewas tough to take, but we later heard that somesubs received as little as 15% after waiting almost a year. Ouch.
The bubbling carpet and the carpet cleaner. The first we knew there was a problem was when Curt, the property manager for the Jinson Building, told us he had a warranty claim: “All that carpet you sold and installed for us is bubbling and our corridors look like the ‘waves of the ocean.’” Curt was irate and during his tirade threatened to sue “if you don’t get out here and take care of this.” Actually, we hadn’t done work in that building for at least three years; however, after a brief inspection we saw the extent of the problem and brought in a nationally known flooring inspector to determine the cause.
A thorough inspection was done with the excitable Curt hovering nearby. He was mollified when we assured him we would be back in touch the following week. “You’d better be,” he said. We had hopedthat the cause of the bubbling was either defective adhesive or overzealous carpet cleaning. Unfortunately, the written report’s conclusion was damning.
While the carpet hadbeen overcleaned, which caused some dimensional changes while drying, the adhesive was notdefective; our installer had just not applied enough adhesive to the floor. Apparently a 1/16” notch trowel or worn 3/32” notch trowel had been used rather thanthe 1/8” notch trowel that should have been used. Without sufficient adhesive, the carpet could not even withstand seasonal changes caused by heating and cooling. The report didpoint out that overly aggressive, repeated hot water extraction cleaning was a contributing factor.
The following week Curt agreed to our counter offer(he wanted complete replacement): We agreed to a complete reinstallation of all corridor carpet, or carpet replacement at a substantialdiscount in high-use areas. He would also use the “contributory factor” of the aggressive carpet cleaning to wring someconcession out of his other contractor. The best part for us was that we got to price new work in his other buildings.
The broken subfloor. Wade was the facilities manager for a small city school system and in the dead of winter, called for help. “I don’t know what’s going on, but the tile floor you installed in our recreation area is beginning to break up. How about taking a look at it with me?”
This floor had been installed the previous summer after the school’s general contractor had done a complete demolition of the area, including asbestos removal and floor shot-blasting. Our notes showed that upon inspection, the floor was so rough we recommended a cementitious underlaymentthat would provide a consistent smooth surface for the areas, rather than use a trowel-down patch. We had priced the job, but the school had elected to use their own contractor to save money. We hadinspected the area, done some minor prep and installed vinyl tile.
Wade was under a lot of pressure to quickly come up with some answers. “I’m not after a formal inspection report; I just need to know the cause and then we’ll decide where to go from there.” An inspection by our project manager and an underlayment expert showed the poured underlayment was releasing from the concrete substrate, creating a lack of bond strength. The underlayment specialist stated, “There are several issues, all of which relate to the type and method of installation of underlayment. A gypsum-type underlayment was installed rather than the cementitious type you specified; it does not appear that primerwas used before the pour and the floor was not cleaned before application.” There was no evidence that the tile was improperly installed.
Wade said with a frustrated sigh, “I’ve heard enough. You’re off the hook on this one. We’ll have this redone by our contractor since we’re holding a10% retentionon him. Thanks for the information.”
Solve your next conflict. Don’t be drawn into an emotional response. What if I’d embarrassed James by calling him an idiot for not doing his research? How would Bud have reacted if I’d just pulled the crew and said, “Call me when you have a clean site?” We would have lost substantial money if I had lost my temper with Jeff and not called our attorney. It was tough to give in to Curt, with his hostile attitude, partly because we hadmade mistakes and our pride was hurt. By quickly helping out Wade with his school disaster, we solidified our reputation and avoided any liability.
With any conflict, there is always the potential to forever damage a relationship orenhance your reputation. Remember these examples the next time you’re tempted to give an angry response. Sometimes it is better to win small than lose big