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Snake-Oil Salesman

Mr. Haney lives on. Not the actual Mr. Haney – actor Pat Butram, who played the unusual salesman on TV’s Green Acres from 1965-71, died some years ago – but a close facsimile.

Mr. Haney, as fans of the absurd series will recall, was a smooth-talking entrepreneur who always seemed to turn up at the farm of the series protagonist, Oliver Wendall Douglas (Eddie Albert), when Mr. Douglas needed something. It didn’t matter that Mr. Haney had sold the naive Oliver useless things in the past, he would often be able to talk the city slicker who wanted to be a farmer into shelling out his hard-earned cash for something that would purportedly save him time and money but actually did neither.

Mr. Haney should be on everyone’s mind when approaching capital work. Beware of the smooth-talking salesman, who seems to have the answers to your dilemmas – at just the right price, too! As a board member, you are always trying to save your building money. I know of one small, self-managed co-op that runs a pretty tight ship, thanks to the efforts of everyone, but chiefly because the treasurer is as watchful as King Croesus.

Sometimes, however, you can be too clever by half. When the board of this building needed some repair work on the roof, it took proposals from two firms, one small and one large. The large firm sent a lower-level fellow who gave what seemed to the board like glib answers. The smaller firm was represented by the president of the company, who lived in a co-op himself and seemed to know all the concerns of the owners. Why shouldn’t he? It was as though he was one of them.

The small co-op went with the small company. A match. Well, not quite.

Apparently, the small job was too much for the small, one-man firm. He made mistakes on measurements, on contractors, on materials. And when he was queried about it, he gave long, defensive answers – for which he billed the property. The work was completed – but not without a lot of pushing and pulling.

Never again, swore the board. But, after a good experience with a large firm doing rear-wall work, the board seemed to forget its incident with the one-man shop, and, like Mr. Douglas on Green Acres, allowed itself to be sweet-talked into another disastrous deal by an oh-so-sympathetic engineer, again a principal in a small company.

He had an impressive spiel – and he was knowledgeable, too. The board used him on a small consulting job in which he assessed the useful lives of some of the building’s systems and structures. Happy with the result, the directors asked him to obtain bids for some repair work that needed to be done.

When he was three months late on a bid deadline that he himself had set, he finally responded to a series of written questions – but kept shifting ground, like Mr. Haney or like the parrot shop salesman in Monty Python’s Flying Circus who tried to justify his sale of a dead parrot to an irate customer by claiming the non-breathing bird was “only resting.”

“He did not answer our first question directly and instead referred back to an old inspection report rather than the most recent estimates from July,” a board member said. “The bottom line is that in July, he recommended budgeting $50,000 for fire escape/masonry, and $10,000 for a scaffold, plus possible permitting fees. Then, in September, he recommended budgeting $115,000. He seemed to be dodging the question by using estimates from last year.”

As his excuses changed – one of them was to blame a since-dismissed employee for screwing up on the deadlines – one thing remained constant: his insistence that the board meet with him and discuss matters, as though his charming demeanor would mesmerize the board into forgetting the facts. The two parties eventually parted ways without ever meeting again.

The moral of the story? Don’t be fooled. Beware of Mr. Haneys bearing gifts – they will ultimately cost you more than they’re worth.

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