Discover your free Construction Marketing Ideas Email Newsletter

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The fall from grace

This morning I received a disturbing phone call from the wife of a subcontractor. I sensed her mixture of anger and bitterness, and loss, as she recounted the tale of her businesses' decline because, she said, of a dispute with a general contractor. I felt her pain, her hurt, her frustration and undoubtedly her sense of loneliness -- with the perceived destruction of her family business, and vultures circling everywhere, with fair weather friends and no end in sight to the loss and defeat.
I can't verify the truthfulness of her claims, nor can I be sure that the general contractor -- not her business -- is responsible for her distress. My emotional radar scope picked up a signal: "Stay away from this one". It is one thing to want to help others -- it is another to get dragged down in a painful, prolonged and bitter legal mess.
These stories, of course, happen all too often in business. They don't get reported publicly -- individual commercial disputes are rarely newsworthy; at least, they are rarely newsworthy enough for the media to spend thousands of dollars on legal advice to prevent libel actions.
But as I listened to her observations, I thought about how she could have avoided the mess she is experiencing, and, if she is in it, what she could do to correct the situation.

In doing this, I am speaking in general, and not describing any particular business. Over 20 years in business, I've grown aware of the signals and warning signs that allow some to survive and thrive. Here is a summary of some of the guidelines I've learned through hard experience to follow.
It is rarely wise to put on 'airs' of wealth, success or conspicuous consumption. Yes, you may have 'earned' the luxury car or fancy home -- but you will invite envy and less than warm receptions, unless you are open, above board, and truly honorable in all your business dealings. Do you really need to show off your success? Can you live well, but more modestly?
Keep your nose to the ground, and your ears to reputation, before entering into business dealings with any other organization where the volume of the business or its significance is vital to your business survival.
One printer I have worked with described how he knew other similar medium-sized printers had fallen victim to a much larger printing company. This printer would give the smaller printer much work as a sub-contractor/supplier, to the point that the printer stopped looking for other clients and became dependent on the 'big guy'. Then the large printer suddenly pulled the business, declined to pay bills, and held the smaller printer for ransom -- with the only escape being a 'sell out' at fire sale prices. The printer, through his network within the business community, knew these practices, and knew to stay clear of the false 'opportunity' offered by the bigger printer. If something looks alluring, and 'easy' in business, it is often a sign that something is not right.
If you are going to engage in a legal fight, make sure you can win (or at least achieve a stalemate).
About a decade ago, I became embroiled in a nasty legal fight with a former competitor. The competitor had much more money than my business, and (I learned) was known to play dirty. But I set the fight on terms that made it particularily challenging for the other party -- to get my business, the competitor also had to sue a major, high-profile and well respected organization. Now, it is one thing for a small business to stand up to a bully, alone; it is quite another for the competitor to have to pick a legal fight with a major business organization. As it turns out, the matter ended in a split judgment, with a significant costs award in my business's favour.
Bitterness, anger, and recriminations will rarely help your case. There are times to make peace, accept responsibility and move on. Some fights are worth fighting; others are not. The mental energy and stress in battling the evil forces will drain and destroy you -- you need to look at things from other perspectives, and find the good things around you.
As I drafted this blog, the person involved called me again; I felt the hurt, the anger, the frustration, the bitterness. And I thought, more than ever, that there are times to "just let go" and find pride and happiness in things that really matter. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes the 'bad guys' aren't really bad (but get the blame). But in the end we all should aim to find happiness and hope -- and the best way to do that is to see things from a positive and progressive perspective.

No comments: