Have you heard the story about the man who impersonated a Catholic cardinal at Vatican City? We learn the man had gained access to a closed-door ecclesiastical meeting only to be exposed as an imposter and hastily ushered out of St. Peter’s Square. The somewhat amusing imposter story reminds us of the not-so-amusing consequences that business owners face when failing to meet their obligations with government entities, which obligations may include federal (income and payroll tax), state (sales and franchise tax), and municipal (property tax and utilities). To the government, non-compliance to financial obligations merits ‘imposter’ status and a corresponding harsh response. We occasionally encounter small-to-medium-sized business owners (SMBs) who are struggling to meet their government obligations. We share a few observations of what can happen when the government as an important creditor is mismanaged. We then encourage business owners to adopt a few proactive management techniques designed to increase the likelihood that government obligations can be met on a consistent basis. We encourage your comments, which are always greatly appreciated!
Recently as over 100 cardinals of the Catholic Church assembled in preparation for electing their next Pope, a mysterious ‘cardinal’ was discovered in their midst. He had arrived at St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City dressed splendidly wearing a dark clergy robe or cassock, a purple sash, a crucifix, and a well-fitted black fedora hat. For a few moments, he fluttered around greeting other dignitaries and then gained access to a closed-door, pre-conclave meeting. Security guards were less impressed. The man’s cassock was too short, his sash was really a scarf, the crucifix was of unusual design, and his fedora out of place – he should have been wearing a zucchetto, the traditional skullcap of bishops. Upon further inquiry, the man was found lacking the right credentials and identified as an imposter. Despite the man’s protests, a contingent of Swiss Guards forcibly escorted him away from St Peter’s Square.
Allow me for a moment to ask some silly questions. Should the man have been allowed to stay? What right did the Swiss Guard have to escort him away from such an important meeting? Shouldn’t his vote have counted in electing the next Pope? I hope we can all agree the man did not belong and as one who attempted to deceive others and who may not have had the organization’s best interests in mind, this man was labeled an ‘imposter’ and rightfully escorted out.
It is the right of organizations to use their power to defend themselves from those who do not follow the rules and who may try to do harm.
Some business owners occasionally forget this principle in interactions with their stakeholders. By stakeholders, I mean those other entities that can help or harm a particular business. The most obvious stakeholders are customers and suppliers – they influence the ability of the business to sell products and services and, ideally, to generate a profit. In the fractional CFO business, we always encourage our clients to diversify their customer and supplier base so that no supply chain member has sufficient power to disrupt our client businesses – even if everyone seems to be playing nicely now. Not all stakeholders fit this diversification strategy template. One important outlier is government institutions. We encourage business owners to respect and prioritize those relationships. Government entities have no competition and are well equipped to protect themselves from perceived threats. The IRS has little patience with businesses that habitually fail to pay their income and payroll taxes. The State wants to see its sales taxes and franchise taxes paid regularly and on time. The Municipalities like their property taxes and utility bills paid consistently.
So what happens when business owners fail to pay their obligations to these government entities? A clear and certain process is followed which is by its very nature—punitive. Though the process varies slightly by government entity, the end game is usually very expensive and disruptive to the business owner. To protect itself, the IRS will begin a formal legal process that includes late-filing penalties and late-paying penalties and interest. Fraud and accuracy errors are penalized heavily. The IRS can and will levy a company’s bank account, which may come at an inopportune time for the company and completely disrupt business operations. Company payroll and vendor payments may be unexpectedly delayed, which is a major aggravation for all involved. When collecting state taxes, the state operates in a similar manner as the IRS. With regard to municipalities, it is common to have an immediate 20% penalty imposed for late payment of property taxes. The liability is further compounded by interest until paid in full. Utility companies typically charge a hefty fee for late payments and they stand ready and willing to shut off electric and gas power as necessary to encourage the company to catch up on paying its utility bills. Taken as a whole, these government entities tend to be equally punitive or more punitive than other company stakeholders.
Occasionally, I encounter the triple-whammy effect, in which a company is delinquent in paying at least three government obligations, which may include payroll taxes, property taxes, and utility bills. When I find companies with these problems, I have a simplistic solution that may not work in every situation, but it gets the conversation started with the management team.
- If you cannot afford to pay your payroll taxes, then your company payroll is too high! Recommended course of action is to lower the payroll.
- If you cannot find the cash to pay your property taxes, then you have too much real estate and / or personal property. Work to eliminate or consolidate your holdings.
- If you cannot pay your utility bills, then shave energy costs. I would rather shut the power off myself than have the utility company shut my company’s power off at an inopportune time.
I have probably oversimplified a complex situation, but I felt a need to get these pent-up recommendations off my chest. Just some thoughts from one who has worked with many business owners in many different situations with the objective of facilitating their financial success.