Lesson Learned

Mark Roberts

I consider myself to be very blessed and fortunate during my thirty-one years in the sign industry. Almost 100 percent of my projects have been successful and returned a nice profit for my time and talents.

But this month, I’ll explain how the tide recently (and suddenly) turned into a comedy of errors and misfortune because of my ignorant trust in a subcontractor who managed to do everything wrong at the wrong time—and who didn’t even have the dignity to admit or correct his errors.

Let me set the situation for you: I happened to be in search of a local contractor who could do some precision waterjet cutting of two sets of 0.125-inch aluminum letters for me. These letters were going to be used to identify a custom metal coatings company in northeast Houston. I needed a set of forty-eight-inch-tall letters and a slightly smaller set of thirty-six-inch-tall letters.

At the outset, the client and I toured the buildings and surveyed the two walls where the letters would call home in a few short weeks. A price was negotiated, the contracts signed, and the deposit paid. Then I was off to find a competent waterjet cutting service that could produce these aluminum letters for me.

Living in the fourth largest city in the nation (Houston), I should’ve scanned the Yellow Pages® for a list of contractors who could cut these letters for me. Unfortunately I skipped this step, and instead, I visited a cutting service that was close to my shop. (Mistake #1:Always get three bids for three different subcontractors.)

I met with the owner, who immediately put me at ease. He was a very nice guy who said they would do a great job and at a reasonable price.

I gave him a thumb drive, so he opened up my files (which were created in Gerber Omega 2.5) and converted them to .dxf files. The owner expanded the files to their true size and mentioned that a few of the corners had some excess “nodes,” which they would remove and smooth out for me.

I took a look at the screen, as his assistant removed the excess points from a few of the letters. She told me, “Everything looks good now!”

We agreed on a price, and I provided my debit card with the understanding that I would be charged half-down immediately, and the remaining balance would be charged when I picked up my letters. We shook hands, and I returned to my shop.

The next day, my wife was checking our online banking statement—which, word of warning, should be done each and every day—and she noticed that the waterjet service had charged the entire amount of the sale to our debit card.

I told her that the contractor and I had agreed that I would pay 50 percent down, and I could pay the balance when I picked up the letters. This was the first red light that began to flash in this transaction.

I immediately called the waterjet cutting service and asked to speak to the owner; of course, he happened to be conveniently away at the time.

I then asked for the bookkeeper. Wouldn’t you know it? He never picked up the telephone.
The next day, I called again and finally got through to the owner. I complained to him about the total charge for the project being taken via my debit card. He assured me that the letters would be ready tomorrow and everything would be fine.

A week-and-a-half later, one of his employees called to tell me that the letters were now ready to be picked up. I pulled up to the loading dock and looked at the pallet of aluminum letters. I was now experiencing the shock of my thirty-one-year career in the sign business!

The letters on the pallet were a complete and total train wreck (Photo 1). Every radius corner was a series of straight lines. There wasn’t a smooth radius anywhere to be found. In fact, the letters were even one-half-inch out of radius (Photo 2)!

I asked for the owner, who tap-danced around my complaints about the project. He then added insult to my injury by telling me that, and I quote, “Our machines cut the files that you gave us.”
And now for his ultimate line of insult: He added, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. The owner wouldn’t look me in the eye. He kept moving around like a scared little rabbit. Finally he said, “These are your letters. Take them. We can only cut the files that you gave to us.”

Speaking of the cutting, adding even more insult to injury, we looked at the letters and noticed that they had been laser cut and not waterjet cut (Photo 3).
So what could I do now? He had 100 percent of my money, I had a pile of very “non-professionally” cut aluminum letters, and the profit margin had screamed all the way to zero. It was now time to regroup and work diligently to please my own customer.

My right-hand man Michael and I took each and every letter and created new radii for all corners. Fortunately we had enough material to work with, so we began working the radius corners into shape with belt sanders (Photo 4). We even had to perfect the inside radius of some of the letters—such as the letter “g” (Photo 5). Each radius corner was cut in vinyl and applied to the aluminum letters as a guide.

After about seven hours, we had completely salvaged the letters, which were now ready for the powder-coating process.

Before the powder coating, we took the letters to the job site for a pre-fitting (Photo 6) and to drill the mounting holes into the letters and the metal walls of the two buildings (Photo 7).
To ensure our accuracy, we brought along our laser alignment tool, which we use for large letter installations (Photo 8).

After the fitting and drilling was accomplished, we handed the stacks of letters to the shop foreman for powder coating (Photo 9).

The following week, we returned to install the letters onto the corrugated metallic building walls.

The customer was very pleased with our efforts and the finished product—which is always my ultimate goal. Even though we probably broke even on this project, I learned several very important life lessons during these three weeks:

Lesson #1: Always ask for referrals from your peers about services that you’ve never used before.
Lesson #2: Ask for three references of three of their former customers. If you’re dealing with a reputable company, they should gladly give you these references.
Lesson #3: Pay your deposit with a check. Don’t use a debit card! You won’t get stuck with 100 percent of the money lost on a horrible job.
Lesson #4: Always have your antennas up for service providers who are in the lower percentages of quality and integrity. Some aren’t easy to spot, as I quickly discovered.

And life goes on. Nobody missed any meals or paychecks. We got over it, and we’re moving on down our list of great projects we have on the board.

We’re much wiser, and I’ll be much more diligent when selecting subcontractors in the future. You should too.