Anybody who has ever owned their own business knows that you have to wear many hats. On any given day, you might be making a sales presentation to a new client, working the cash register, making deliveries, or taking out the trash. Or being a bill collector.
During my long career publishing small-town newspapers on the Pacific Northwest coast and in Arizona, I’ve dealt with many fine business people who always paid their bills promptly and were a pleasure to deal with.
I also encountered customers who were struggling to get by, and sometimes they got behind in their accounts. Not because they were trying to stiff me, they simply did not have the money. When this happens, a newspaper usually loses that customer. Being a small businessman myself, and sometimes having to wonder where my dinner might come from that night, I always tried to find ways to work around their situation.
One of those ways was bartering. If a business owed me, say $200, rather than lose them as a customer, I would suggest that we trade for something they had in their store. I would much rather have the cash, but anything is better than nothing, right?”
This is something that happens with most newspapers and radio stations in small markets. I can’t tell you how many meals I have eaten in restaurants, how many movie tickets I passed out to friends and family, and how much work I had done on my vehicles and home, or whatever somebody could give me to settle their account. Then I told them that we would start from scratch, and they could pay every week rather than waiting until the bill got out of hand again. They appreciated that, and many of them became steady, faithful paying customers for years.
This may not be the best business model, but it worked for me. It also made my family and employees very happy. When Miss Terry and I got together, she was shocked that on Christmas and birthdays, my employees got things like nice jewelry, big-screen televisions, and things like that. I also made sure that they always had good tires on their cars and that their vehicles were in topnotch shape. Terry will tell you that when we first starting seeing each other, I had a dozen roses delivered to her office every week until she finally had to tell me to stop it because it was getting embarrassing. All this because of bartering for unpaid bills.
However, there were always some people who just didn’t want to pay their bills, even though they could well afford to do so. Then you had a couple of choices. You could sue them and hope to collect, but just because you have a judgment against somebody doesn’t mean you’re ever going to ever see a penny of what they owe you. Often times, going to small claims court was just a waste of time. So, occasionally I got creative.
There was a dentist in Hoquiam, Washington, who ran up a bill with me for several hundred dollars for advertising. Every time I tried to collect, he was not available. He was either with a patient or in a conference with somebody, but I was always promised he would get back to me by the end of the day. Of course, he never did.
One day when I stopped by his office in another attempt to get paid, the door was locked, but the receptionist for the doctor’s office next door said, “He’s in Hawaii. He won’t be back until next Monday.” Yes, this guy who had strung me along for several months decided to take a vacation to Hawaii! I couldn’t afford a vacation, but apparently, he could. Okay, we can handle that.
The day he got back, I called, not telling the receptionist who I was, and asked if he was available for an emergency procedure that afternoon to replace a crown. She said no problem come on in. He was busy, but he would fit me in. A woman who worked for me named Debbie had four of the most unruly children that ever crawled across a carpet on this earth. I asked her if I could borrow her kids and her van for a couple of hours. She looked at me strangely but said, “Take them. Keep them as long as you want.”
First, I took those youngsters for ice cream cones, and then we stopped at the store, and we got candy and soda. When we pulled up in front of the dentist’s office, I gave them all a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then we went inside
Seeing me, the receptionist said that the doctor was too busy to talk to me that day. Yeah, I’ve heard that story before. I told her no problem, I would just sit and wait in case he had an opening. Then I turned those little heathens loose in the office. Do you have any idea how much havoc four little kids on a sugar high can do in a professional office?
Within minutes there were peanut butter and jelly stains on the carpet, on one of the chairs in the waiting room, on the big saltwater aquarium, and on the wall. One of them toppled over a stand with a plant on it, and another, who was just about potty trained, pulled down his pants and peed on said plant, which was now lying on the floor. And let’s not forget the one who was wailing at the top of her lungs.
Unbelievably, the very busy dentist was out in the lobby within five minutes, wanting to know what the hell was going on. I told him it was good to see him, and that I had missed him. Then I asked him how his trip to Hawaii was. Before he could answer, one of the kids threw up on the couch. I think she may have had too much junk food.
He yelled above the bedlam and said I needed to get those kids out of there. I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough gas to get back to my office. Then I suggested that maybe if he paid his bill, I could fill up the tank and we could both get back to our regularly scheduled day. He paid me, and I rounded up my pint-sized terrorists and away we went. Mission accomplished.
When I was in the White Mountains of Arizona, there was a gentleman who ran a power tool shop, and he was notorious for not paying his bills. He owed me $500 or something like that, and every time I tried to collect, he always had a story. I’ll give him credit, some of the stories were pretty good! Once, his sister, who did the bookkeeping, had been in a terrible automobile accident and was barely clinging to life. He said he would have to wait until he could find someone to fill her shoes to pay me. He didn’t even know where she kept the checkbook, but it was probably at her house. On another visit, he told me he had been having chest pains and was just on his way out the door to go to the ER. Probably the best one was the time when burglars broke into his office, and the only thing they stole was his checkbook. Not the thousands of dollars worth of chainsaws and other equipment sitting on the shelves, just the checkbook.
Well, those were not the only thieves in the world. One day I went in and handed him his invoice and said I really needed to be paid that day. He told me he was with some customers and I would have to wait until we could talk. The shop was pretty busy, I’ll give him that, but every time he had a break from a customer, he would disappear into the back room before I could get to him.
When you live in a small town, everybody knows everybody. While I was standing there, the local police chief wandered in the door. We were good friends, in fact, we belonged to the same classic car club. He asked what I was doing, and I said I was trying to collect a bill. He told me he was going to buy a chainsaw.
Hearing the chief, the owner of the store came out, and they started talking. I interrupted long enough to ask what the most expensive chainsaw he had in the shop was. He pointed me to something, I don’t remember the brand now, but I do know that it was $1500 for the saw, the case, and some other equipment that came with it. So, while he was busy with the chief, I picked it up and went outside and put it in the back of my truck. The chief came out shortly afterward, not finding what he wanted, and I told him what I had done. Knowing the man’s reputation, he got a chuckle out of that and wished me well.
Back in my office, an hour so later, the phone rang, and guess who it was? The gentleman from the store said he remembered seeing me looking at the chainsaw, but now he couldn’t find it. Did I put it someplace else? I told him I’d put in the back of my truck and brought it home with me. He asked why I did that, and I said I traded it for the $500 he owed me. He didn’t take kindly to that and told me that the saw cost three times as much as the past due bill. I agreed that was probably right, but I had no use for a chainsaw, and I would probably have to sell it at a great loss rather than be tempted to start it up and more then likely cut one of my limbs off.
He told me to bring it back, and I told him no. He said he would call the police, and I told him to be sure to ask for the chief, since he had seen the saw in the back of my truck. I suggested that the chief might even be a witness for the prosecution. We went back and forth like that for a few minutes, and finally, he said to bring the saw back to his office, and he would give me a check. Having played that game before, and having his checks bounce, I told him no, he would come to my office, with cash in hand. No checks, no promises, I wanted five $100 bills. I wouldn’t even take $50s or $20s. I wanted five $100 bills.
He didn’t appreciate that at all, and he called me some names that were downright hurtful. But he did show up at my office within 15 minutes and give me my money. I thanked him very much and said I hoped we could do business again. After all, I had my eye on a nice Rototiller he had sitting in the shop, too!
Thought For The Day – If God ever made anything better than a good dog, He kept it for himself.