The year was 1975, the place Paoli, Penn. We were arriving at the office early to get the day’s work from our boss, the owner, Henry. In the early morning light I saw my employer’s leg, then backside appear coming out from a side window of the office as he climbed down to greet us. I’m sure the look on my face was total amazement.

Henry had his hands full of plans and folders and must have motioned to me and to look at the office door. On cue we turned to see padlocks. They were put on courtesy of the taxman. They were large and impressive and on all the outside doors – but apparently not the windows. Signs had been nailed up warning everyone about not entering the building for any reason under penalty of the law.

“Henry, do I need to look for another job?” I asked.

“Oh no, no, everything’s fine. This is just temporary. Here’s your work for the day.” As our crew’s Chevy Suburban turned out of the parking lot, I felt little confidence.

My family, the four of us, lived from paycheck to paycheck on my small salary. Every week on payday our crew chief always raced to the bank to cash his check. I asked, “Is it really necessary for you to cash your check as soon as possible?”

Charlie responded, “Sometimes they have run out of money in the account and I want to cash this before everyone else, just in case.” Up to that day of reckoning with the taxman, I thought it funny.

That afternoon when we pulled back into the office parking lot, the padlocks were off and things seemed normal. It would be days before we learned what that was all about. I was 24 and naively assumed most adults managed their finances well, especially employers.

Gold or Fool’s Gold?

When I perform a property survey, it is routine to get the deeds for the adjoining property owners. I may get the whole block depending on how the lots are laid out. The captions of those deeds often cite “according to a survey by...” Every year I still seem to read a new name, at least new to me. I wonder ‘where did that guy go (generally they were men’s names) and why have I not heard of him before?’ I also wonder what kind of work they did and was it accurate and dependable. I don’t know what happened to the majority of small, short-lived surveying firms.

I could guess many of the reasons their business ended. Their employees probably moved on to other companies or professions. Those who lost businesses could tell you why the owner should have made more, or of the risk they certainly took, and about the losses incurred when their business ended and the toll it took on them and their family. Having been “around the block” a few times in land surveying, I have seen a variety of ways companies have panned out to produce gold or fool’s gold.

When you see the bid on a small topo survey and calculate your field time and the office time spent, you may think the employer is cashing in on your hard work and not sharing the wealth. If that’s so, you may want to consider working for someone else, or for yourself. However, I’d like to point out a few of the things your employer pays for which might not cross your mind. It would do employees well to observe what is involved in running a business and in keeping it profitable. One day you may consider hanging up a shingle. It’s not easy and requires more than a 40 hour week to start a company and enough funds to pay out during months when there is little income.

Once you hire a single employee, you begin the process of extracting part of their pay for many different forms of tax. In Southeast Pennsylvania I hold back social security, federal, state and local taxes. I pay a matching social security, workmen’s compensation, liability, automotive and general liability insurance. Never employ any person for a minute without a social security number and workmen’s compensation insurance coverage.

When I told my brother-in-law who worked for the Massachusetts Dept. of Revenue how much an hour I paid my accountant to sit in an audit for me, he was shocked and said it could not be that much. He was paid by the state to audit companies and had not thought about the cost incurred by those employers to protect themselves. This is all part of owning a business and everyone should be prepared to protect themselves and their family before they hang up that shingle or work on the side. The expression “stuff happens” is a truism, and the “stuff” can get deep, fast.

When Bad Things Happen

When my party chief had an instrument with an electronic problem, he phoned me to resolve his trouble. It was the right thing to do because I am responsible to supply him with the tools of the trade. My employee did not have to think, “should I buy a new one or fix this one?” He did not have to feel bad because I lost a field day’s worth of billiing for a crew, or about renting a temporary instrument at a high weekly rate, or hear the supplier say, “Look, I’ve got three weeks of repairs in front of you. Send it in and get in line.”

Another facet is what happens when things go wrong. I know of a surveyor who moved out of state because he did not have error and omission insurance. The phone call about “the problem” came in the morning and he was on a plane that afternoon – end of business. Even with insurance, there is usually a deductible and I believe they start at $2,500.

How about the employee that steals checks? Or there may be an employee with substance abuse problems?

One of the worst issues I recall is of a coworker who informed a draftsman that he had a gun in his trunk and was ready to go get it. The general manager, a man with class who reminds me of “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch, had to let the man go for threatening another employee with a pistol. I had not thought about it until now, but he was firing a man with a gun. That could have been bringing a pink slip to a gun fight.

Zeros in the Right Places

There was a day when as the assistant to the Chief of Surveys, I opened the envelope to look at my paycheck and did not see at first it was the general manager’s. Standing there with a puzzled look on my face, I tried to make sense of all the zeros on what I thought was my check. While frozen, the bookkeeper came and said there had been a mistake and his check was put in my envelope by mistake. Although it was a lot of money, our boss earned every penny he made.

Naturally, as an employee you see the work that you perform and tend not to notice the lost time or unbillable hours. Unless your employer sends you out to collect bills, you probably will not know about “uncollectables.” That would include clients that declare bankruptcy, argue down bills for legitimate work performed, or simply leave the area and drop out of sight. At a small business seminar, the lawyer teaching it said that if you have 3 percent or less in uncollectables, forget about it. Go back to work and make money from people who pay their bills.

My first experience with bad clients was while working in Missouri with my employer performing a simple lot survey. The property owner was there with us as we cut through the brush and watched us the whole time. A few weeks later, my boss told me the guy refused to pay his bill because we cut his trees.

I was shocked and asked him “What are you going to do about it?” He said “Nothing. The guy was going to steal from me when we started and this is just his excuse. There is no point in wasting time going after him.” Now I want to point out that this was not his general reaction and he did take people to court to collect, but this time it was better for him to cut his losses. It hit me hard right then and there that I had been paid to do the work for which no revenue would be received. Yes, sometimes your employer pays you to work even when they make nothing.

I really liked working for Henry. He was a good man, a good surveyor, and a good engineer. The taxman had caught him in a brief financial pinch and wanted to temporarily manage Henry’s business and supervise the collection of funds from Henry’s clients. After Henry invited the revenuer outside to “talk,” the padlocks appeared. His business has thrived over the years and he handed it down to very competent people. Having known and worked for him is a treasure.