By Jim Cory John Janowski's company, Christian Builders in Reading, Mass., has been around for 20 years, and Janowski's never had a problem finding work. That's why he called in a consultant.

There was so much work that the systems Janowski had put in place to keep his company running were starting to fray. He contacted Melanie Hodgdon of Business Management Systems, Bristol, Maine.

With a construction background and nine years consulting experience, Hodgdon is highly qualified to advise, especially on the issue that trips remodelers up most frequently: finances. Hodgdon specializes in QuickBooks, which she describes as either a "very useful product or the software from hell, depending on what kind of support you have." But her familiarity with the workings of remodeling companies also allows her to diagnose and prescribe treatments for a broad range of ailments. Cost? About $100 an hour, exclusive of travel.

Practical remedies

Outside advice gives remodeling company owners two things: the perspective to see what they might otherwise be blind to and practical remedies to solve problems.

Last spring, F.D.N. Construction, a Boston company, hired construction attorney Steven J. O'Neill as a consultant. F.D.N. had grown from $600,000 to $6 million in five years, and O'Neill was charged with making an independent assessment of what the company was doing right and wrong. Then, building on F.D.N.'s strengths, he implemented systems consistent with the way the company does business. O'Neill fine-tuned estimating procedures, developed written subcontractor policies, re-wrote contracts, and got the company's Web site up, among other things.

This was "not stuff that was new to us," company vice president Bob Ernst says. "These were things we knew needed to be done. We just didn't have the time to implement them."

Realistic solutions

Like F.D.N. Construction and many companies that grow rapidly, Christian Builders was failing to close the loop, Hodgdon says. Typically, what companies believe is a bookkeeping problem is actually a "lack of policy and consistent procedure, poor management, bad field service personnel," she says.

The loop begins with estimating the job, continues with construction, and concludes with analyzing profitability. "For many, the loop is never closed, so they never get a line-by-line analysis of where their previous estimate was off," Hodgdon says. "So they continue to perpetuate the problem."

At Christian Builders, the lead carpenters spent more time building than managing their projects. "My project manager was going nuts," Janowski says, "because he had to spend so much time on site with the leads." Hodgdon told Janowski that to achieve the profitability he'd targeted, his lead carpenters had to fulfill their job descriptions. Responsibilities were defined and restructured. Hodgdon helped Janowski set up a customized spreadsheet for estimating and fine-tuned job costs so that managers can now do a profit analysis of every phase of every job. Loop closed.