Concreter Vince Di Prinzio, one of many facing losses from the demise of Newcastle builder Sehez Group, has called for law changes to protect subcontractors.
Mr Di Prinzio's firm is owed almost $60,000 after working on six house and townhouse developments for Sehez in Kotara South, Adamstown, Waratah West and Buff Point over the past 18 months.
Sehez director Matt Galvin said the "likes of Vince have been well and truly stitched up" and had little chance of getting their money back after a likely wind-up order in the Victorian Supreme Court next week.
Mr Di Prinzio said he had worked for Sehez since 2018, but their relationship soured in the second half of last year as he spent months seeking outstanding payments from Sehez through Mr Galvin's fellow director, Callan Smith.
He kept agreeing to work for Sehez with the promise of impending payment, but most of the money never came. Then the communication dried up.
"I think I rang Cal every day for two weeks, left constant voice messages. No return calls, no email replies. And then their telephone system and emails were disconnected. I think it was in late October," he said.
"At that point I gave up and rang our solicitor, who put through a letter of demand. From that stage we've never heard back from them ever again."
Mr Di Prinzio's company also lost tens of thousands of dollars when Harvest Homes collapsed last year owing more than $3 million.
"The law has to change. There's got to be repercussions for directors who are doing what they're doing," he said.
"It is so f---ing wrong it's beyond a joke, and you've got people who have been crucified and taken for a ride and can't afford to pay their bills.
"To lose 150 grand in the space of 12 months, it hurts."
Mr Di Prinzio's frustrations boiled over in an incendiary post early this month on his company's Facebook page in which he slammed Mr Galvin and Mr Smith as "unethical".
"I've made some mistakes, but trusting you both was one of my biggest," he wrote.
Other subcontractors and small-time developers who spoke to the Newcastle Herald also felt "fooled" by Mr Galvin and Mr Smith.
Barry Huang, who runs a plastering and painting company, said he was owed about $150,000 for work late last year on a large house in Hamilton, two in Merewether and one at Belmont.
"They just never pay. They say they will, but they never do," he said.
"Unless if they have an urgent job, I stop the job, they pay me once and they ask me to continue. Then I continue and the next time I need to get paid they don't pay again.
"They don't even answer my calls any more."
Some of the jobs remained incomplete because he had not been paid.
Mr Huang subcontracts the work to other tradesmen but buys the materials himself.
"I nearly broke down. I'm only a small business. If I have to pay $150,000 from my own pocket ... I normally take 10 per cent from the job and manage the materials costs.
"The rest is for the subcontractor. I've paid for the materials already, because I only have one month to, and now I don't have enough money to pay my subcontractors."
Mr Huang predicted it would take him two years to "cover this gap".
"I will be in big trouble, but I won't shut down. I will be living hard to pay the bill myself. It's $60,000. I just really need the money to pay my subcontractors."
Mr Galvin said he and Mr Smith had "made mistakes" but had tried to keep the business going to "get that windfall" and pay off creditors.
"While there's a lot of disappointing things that have happened, Cal and I are disappointed in ourselves," he said.
He admitted Sehez had lied to "certainly some" of its creditors while "jamming every last cent" into the company to try to keep it afloat.
A developer who had contracted Sehez to build townhouses in the Lake Macquarie area said she had made advance payments against the advice of her quantity surveyor in the hope of having the project finished before a financier's deadline.
But Sehez's collapse had left her "in the hole" $300,000 and the job remained unfinished.
"I can't believe it. I thought I was a good judge of character, but they've managed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes and keep it rolling, using the clients' money to keep tradies on the hook to do a little more work for them, thus getting themselves in deeper," she said.
"It's not just a group of tradies and suppliers that haven't been paid who are disgruntled; it's people that they've really, really hurt. They've hit everyone. It's an absolute disaster, and they have fooled so many people."
Another subcontractor owed $129,000 said he was "just hanging on, clutching at straws".
"They just sort of kept promising me, kept promising me, saying they're not going to let me down," he said.
"I thought they were sort of mates in a way, the way they talk to you and lured me in thinking I'd help these guys out.
"They've pretty much sunk me, to be honest. I'm in dire straits."
Commenting on whether Sehez had deceived subcontractors, Mr Smith said: "Any time there was a commitment or a promise given, the intent was that it would be upheld."
Many of the contractors told of the stress on themselves and their partners as bills went unpaid.
"I'm just trying to rip into the work to stay afloat, literally busting my arse to stay alive. That's the reality of it," one said.
"I'm just living with the fact I probably won't get anything. I've just got to aim up and dig my way out."
He said trying to recover the debt via legal avenues was akin to "pissing in the wind" given the 10 caveats over Mr Galvin's house and the number of creditors picking over the bones of a company with few assets.
A plumber caught up in the collapse said Sehez had performed well when it was known as Compass Additions, but he was now having to sell one of his trucks to pay accounts and employees.
"It's only in the last 12 months they've decided to burn practically every trade in Newcastle," he said.
Another concreter owed $193,000 said the subcontractors had been unaware what other people were owed.
"We've worked for seven or eight other builders around Newcastle, and I don't really experience anything like this with them at all," he said.
"Sometimes they might have slightly slow payments by a couple of days, but not a couple of months which turns into six months."
He said his firm worked for other builders and would survive the blow to its revenue, but he knew of others who were selling equipment to survive.
Novocastrian Scaffolding owner Ken Bedford, who has worked in the building trade for 30 years, said he had lost "easy" $10 million in bad debts in that time, including at least $120,000 to Sehez.
"If you're only making six per cent on your gross turnover, when you lose $150,000 you've got to turn over almost $2 million to get it back, which is a lot of work," Mr Bedford said.
"It's no good getting angry. What do you do? You just can't retire early. I've already written it off."
Matt Mansman, the third generation in his family to run Mansman Fabrications, has given up on the $100,000 he is out of pocket.
"The money would certainly get me out of the crap," he said.
Plasterers Grant Bros are pursuing $23,000 and have dragged Sehez to court on March 3 for an examination order of the company's finances, though the future of this action is uncertain due to Sehez's likely liquidation.
"We approached a private debt collector in October," Josh Grant said.
"We did plastering work for them on a couple of jobs, dribs and drabs, then payments just stopped mid last year.
"We're out of pocket for the time and materials.
"We're able to get by because we're only a small operation, but it has been a financial strain and stress on my brother and I."
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