Painter says he was stiffed by millionaire Britt Gage over work on her opulent ranch

Mitchell Gibbs made a handshake deal on an $18,000 job, feeling he could trust the wife of an heir to the Carlson Companies.

Mitchell Gibbs made a handshake deal on an $18,000 job, feeling he could trust the wife of an heir to the Carlson Companies.

Mitchell Gibbs, owner of a small but highly rated carpentry business called Decks Unlimited, thought he’d landed a sweet job when he was hired to prime and paint miles of fencing on a ranch in Independence.

The ranch at 1060 Copeland Road -- replete with chandeliers and Rolls Royce golf carts -- belongs to Britt Gage, wife of Carlson Companies heir Richard Gage. Richard is the grandson of Curtis L. Carlson, who founded the hospitality empire that includes Radisson and Country Inn and Suites.

Gibbs says he and Gage agreed on a rate of $2 a foot for an estimated total cost of $18,000. They shook on it, and Gage paid a 50 percent downpayment of $9,000.

Oral contracts are legal and enforceable in Minnesota. They’re just not recommended for obvious reasons, as Gibbs would soon discover. He says he would normally ask clients to sign a written contract, but because Gage seemed like she wouldn’t have any trouble paying, he decided to trust her word.

"She clearly knew what the price was, agreed to it 100 percent, was ecstatic," Gibbs says.

Two months later, he had painted nearly 12,000 feet of fencing, a little more than the original estimate. He sent a bill for the other half of payment. It was ignored.

Dale Hoikka, onsite caretaker at the ranch, was Gibbs’ first point of contact when he followed up. He allegedly told Gibbs that the reason his boss wouldn't pay was that she was still sore about a dispute they’d had over one of her dogs.

Gage owns a blind and deaf dog that was nearly run over by another worker. So Hoikka ordered Gibbs’ employees, Dean Holm and Shaun Skipper, to physically haul buckets of paint from one end of the property to the other -- nearly two football fields.

“They were real rude,” recalls Skipper. “I’m from down south, so I’m used to walking by somebody and saying, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘How’re you doing?’ Now I said that, and the response was people turning their nose up at me. I’ve done a lot of work for a lot of people here [in Minnesota] and I’ve never been treated that bad.”

Gibbs tried to negotiate a small exception on behalf of his workers. He asked that they be allowed to make just one trip in their truck, at the start of the day, to the far end of the field. That way they could also have somewhere to sit as they ate lunch. Gage and Hoikka would have none of it, and the dispute ended on a sour note, Gibbs says.

Reached by phone, Hoikka deflected questions about the fence work.

“I didn’t hire [Gibbs],” he said. “I would try somebody else instead of bothering me and wasting my time. I’ve never heard of City Pages calling anybody about a bill anyways. It’s ridiculous.”

Despite repeated attempts, Gage could not be reached for comment.

Painting Gages’ fence ended up costing Gibbs about $15,000. Invoices show the cost of materials was about $7,000, with an additional $8,000 for labor.

Gibbs paid his employees in full, but eating the total loss himself could put Decks Unlimited under, he says.

"It’s gonna crush us. Things are going to be very thin for us for the next six months. Christmas is going to be vicious for the kids," he says. "It's 30 percent of our yearly sales that we're not getting paid on."

Gage has refused to speak to him since October, Gibbs says. So he has filed a claim in small claims court. A hearing is scheduled for January.