Tips for Dealing with Contractors

Ready to build out your new retail space? If you want the job done right, and in time for your grand opening, then choose your contractors carefully.

This week continues my series on opening a brick and mortar retail store from scratch. So far we’ve talked about startup plans, market research, and scouting for locations.

This week we discuss how to find a capable building contractor to build out the location. And as this series has been thus far, this segment is based on my personal experience and offered to you warts and all. As with all of my columns only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, the ignorant, and the overly litigious.

OK, so I signed my name in blood on the lease agreement and the space was mine for the next two years, succeed or fail. It was a large single room, about 1600 square feet, with a small storage area and two restrooms in the back. The floor was painted concrete, the walls were an odd shade of orange, half the lights didn’t work, and there was no hot water or air conditioning. And that was just scratching the surface. There were a few dozen other things that would have to be repaired or installed before I could move in.

Now a lesser man would have been intimidated by the huge task of converting this empty money pit into a thriving retail store in less than 60 days, but I’m an entrepreneur – which is a French word meaning “idiot who takes on the impossible,” so I was energized by the challenge.

The question then became: who will build out this space? It certainly wasn’t going to be me. When it comes to construction I’m about as handy as a one-armed man in a clapping contest. It was time to line up contractors.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been my experience that a capable, reliable contractor is hard to find. Let me rephrase that: it’s been my experience that a capable, reliable contractor is damn near impossible to find. It’s easier to pin the tail on Bigfoot while blindfolded in dense fog than to find a contractor who understands the concepts of appointments and commitments. Nevertheless, my quest began with the Yellow Pages and referrals from friends.

I quickly felt like Henny Penny, desperately seeking anyone who would help me bake my bread. I talked to flooring contractors, painters, plumbers, electricians, security system installers, heating and air conditioner guys, and general building contractors. Most of them didn’t seem to give a rat’s backside if they got my business or not. Several didn’t bother returning my calls. Others came late to appointments and others didn’t bother showing up at all.

Now I don’t mean to say that all contractors are unprofessional, uncaring, and undependable. I’m sure there are many reputable contractors out there who show up on time, do great work, and bill you fairly. Then there’s the other 99%, many of whom are good old boys who operate out of their pickup trucks without the benefit of license, bond, or concern for their customers’ satisfaction. If you’re a contractor and want to argue these points let’s make an appointment to talk in person. I’m pretty sure you won’t show up.

Fortunately for me I managed to find a contractor in the 1 percentile that went above and beyond the call of duty to get the space built out on time; in spite of my demanding nature and daily changes to the plans. Email me and I’ll give you his name.

So how can you better your chances of finding a reliable contractor to build out your space? Pray, my brothers and sisters, and follow these guidelines.

Don’t be pressured by deadlines. When starting a business you’re usually under a tight schedule, which puts you at the contractor’s mercy (they can smell fear and desperation). They know that you need them more than they need you. This is a lousy place to be, but you have to be patient and don’t hire a contractor simply because he has a hammer and a pulse.

Ask to see licenses and bonds. As mentioned earlier, many contractors forego the formality of business licenses and security bonds. They prefer the “have hammer will travel” mode of business. If the contractor you’re interviewing can’t show you a business license and proof of a surety bond, move on to the next candidate.

Are they wearing a watch? If the contractor isn’t wearing a watch it’s probably because he has no concept of time or regard for schedules. I want to see a contractor wearing a watch that he looks at often. I want to see him carrying a Day-Timer and a cell phone with a number that I have on speed dial.

Ask for references and check the BBB. This should be a no brainer, but I’d bet most entrepreneurs never bother to ask for or check references. You want the names and numbers of at least five previous customers and always check their history with the BBB. Anyone can stencil their name on the side of a truck. Don’t be fooled into thinking that makes them a professional.

Next time we’ll discuss building permits, zoning laws, and building codes; and how your ignorance of these items can cost you a ton of time and a bundle of cash. The voice of experience sings again.

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