January 2012: Finance

Words: Dan Kamys

Dan AuldFinance

Masonry’s easy: Just learn about 10,000 years’ worth of engineering, physics and math about cutting, stacking, mixing and fastening brick, stone, limestone, concrete, glass, stucco, tile and other materials.

It’s often done in grueling conditions. And, if you don’t do it right, people die – nothing to it!

But getting the working capital and surety bond to complete a masonry job? Now that is difficult.??It’s especially difficult for smaller contractors on government jobs. Especially the first one, as Joe Bucci found out.

When the financial tsunami of 2008 swept away contractors, Bucci sold assets, reduced overhead, and borrowed on his home. But to stay in business, he needed one more thing: new customers.

So he went where an increasing number of contractors are going: government projects. Bucci bid on his first government job, the weatherization of a 135-unit New Jersey apartment building. He had the skills and the low bid. But he almost lost the job before it even started.

“I could not get working capital or a bond,” Bucci says. “Most small business owners today cannot. That is because their credit was hurt over the last several years. And, today, a bond is really a line of credit, and is given – or not – based on a credit score. A credit score most small contractors today do not have. And if you do not have the credit score for a bond, you sure as heck do not have it for working capital.”

Rhonda Taylor had the same problem: She quit her job at the post office to start her own building maintenance and landscape company in St. Louis. Private clients were a good start. But Taylor wanted bigger fish. She wanted to take care of all those government buildings all over Missouri.

“We did the research and found out what the contract for building maintenance at the St. Louis airport was worth,” Taylor says. “We knew we could do the work for less.” But, when Taylor tried to get bonding and working capital, six companies turned her down.

“They said I could not get a bond or working capital, because I did not have the credit or cash in the bank,” Taylor says. “We won the contract, but I thought I was going to have to give up on my first government job because no company would write us a bond. Or give us working capital.”

Finally, after one extension, Taylor found working capital and a bond, hours before the airport’s deadline to award the contract to the next lowest bidder.

Both Bucci and Taylor found working capital and a bond at Ox Bonding, a company that specializes in small contractors that do government work. Ox Bonding looked at the ability of Bucci and Taylor to do the work and complete the job, rather than only looking at credit scores.

“When I was a teenager, I sat at the kitchen table when the insurance broker told my dad, a contractor with a spotless record, that he could not do a larger job because he did not have the credit to get working capital and a bigger bond,” says Robert Berman, co-founder of Ox Bonding. “Today it is even worse. That is why we started Ox Bonding: There are a lot of great companies out there doing great work that deserve a bond, and working capital, too.”

Robert Berman is more Steve Jobs than Mother Teresa: He just found a better way to manage risk.

“Our underwriters are construction people, not accountants,” Berman says. “So we look under the hood, check their books, look at their past jobs, and make sure they can do the work. Only then do we issue a bond and make sure they have working capital.”

Ox Bonding also controls the distribution of funds. This further reduces its risk that a contractor will not pay its subs or fail to complete the job. And, if its customers choose, Ox Bonding also will pay taxes, do payroll, and perform other back office functions that free the contractors up to do what they do best.

“The big companies are just not writing bonds or giving working capital for small contractors,” Bucci says. “Ox Bonding does. Without them, I would not be in public work business.”

Ox Bonding is one example, so be diligent, and do your homework on bonding companies. Companies looking to help smaller contractors are out there, making bond and working capital possible to obtain.

Dan Auld is an award-winning writer and business owner in San Diego.

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