by Mark A. Cobb
It doesn’t matter whether you are a material supplier delivering products to a subcontractor, a subcontractor performing work directly for a GC, or a GC building a structure for an owner, you expect to be paid for the labor, materials, and equipment which you provided. In fact, without payment, it could send your business plummeting downward if you cannot pay your own bills.
We highly recommend that before entering into any construction contract, you perform proper due diligence and protect yourself as much as possible. No matter how thorough you are, however, as the project continues, one of the parties involved with the project might experience a material change in their business or their cash-flow which can directly impact you and make recovery of the money you are owed more difficult. Thus, you want to keep evaluating each customer’s credit-worthiness.
For over 20 years, clients have shared with us some of the early-warning signs (which they largely ignored) which indicated that their customer might be a payment risk after the initial credit-check, and we thought our readers might like to see this list (and add to it themselves!) The following is a checklist of situations which may indicate that you are working with a potentially distressed party:
1. A change in your customer’s bank account may indicate many things including accounts closed, banking problems, a garnishment, etc.
2. Your customer pays you from different bank accounts (unless its accounts are separated by project, escrow, etc.); this is unprofessional and may indicate spreading out their assets to avoid garnishment or to rely upon the float by the banks.
3. Significant fluctuations in your customer’s inventory may indicate volatile business practices, changes in credit with other vendors, etc.
4. An unusually large order may indicate that the customer has undertaken a project larger than its capabilities.
5. Unexpected / unplanned growth of your customer’s business; great businesses maintain and update business plans; unplanned growth can cripple a business, overextend its employees and assets, and cause the business to fail to meet its new obligations.
6. High debt to equity ratio; customers in this position are a credit risk.
7. When your customer loses a major job or client; if too much business comes from one relationship, then the loss of that business can be devastating.
8. A generally disorganized approach to its business, accounts payable, accounts receivable is scary; likely, that business does not understand the extent of their liabilities, realistic expectations of income, etc. and that could put you in a dangerous position if you need to implement collection procedures.
9. Rumors; my Mother always told me that “where there is smoke, there is fire.”
10. If you hear comments from other construction industry professionals that your customer isn’t charging enough, then it might indicate that your customer is trying to get business on any terms in order to improve its panic for cash-flow; inevitably, they will run out of money and someone (hopefully not you!) will be left holding the bag.
11. Requests to extend payment terms may indicate that your customer needs more time to “shuffle” its assets to pay you.
12. Liens (including state and federal tax liens which are all public record); a 10-second check on-line can indicate the fiscal health of your customers.
13. Slow payments: creditors and debtors typically establish a billing and payment practice over time, when they deviate, it may indicate a potential problem.
14. Employee layoffs; if possible, visit your customer at their office, a reduction in their workforce could hint of problems to come.
15. Key employee changes dramatically alter the bottom-line and the business practices; when changes in management occur, they may use other vendors (forgetting to pay you), may emphasis other payment policies, could indicate that top management was receiving their paychecks or benefits.
16. Family and health issues related to owner or key employee (or their families) such as divorce, death or serious illness can greatly impact a business relationship.
17. Excessive downtime may indicate unexpected reduction in your customer’s revenues.
18. You customer’s business is for sale or sold; there may be ways for a new purchaser to avoid debt incurred prior to the sale; it can also indicate financial or industry-specific problems; also, it may result in a new corporate atmosphere which may make collection more difficult; frequently, the new owners tell you the former owner is responsible for the debt, but the old owner tells you that the new owner assumed the obligations.
19. You receive excessive inquiries for credit references for your customer; this might be a customer who is trying to expand their credit in order to generate funds to pays others (“borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul syndrome).
20. Excuses for nonpayment or slow payment (lost invoices, “check is in the mail”, skipped invoices, unsigned checks, NSF checks, “no one is available to sign the check”, etc.); excuses are never a good sign.
Good credit management means vigilance. Do not agree to extend credit, perform work, or supply materials unequivocally on a long-term project without some follow-up to see if your customer’s financial position has changed. If it changes, and if you react promptly enough, it will make recovery of your money easier and reduce your exposure. Fortunately, you have several options including filing a preliminary lien, obtaining personal guarantees, and requiring stricter terms. In next week’s blog we will explore some of the options you may want to consider when you see indicators that a customer may become a credit-risk to you.
If you have other early-warning signs that alert you to potential payment issues, please leave a comment below.