First, some history.

For the original Big50, "Big" really meant big. In 1986, its first year, the Big50 comprised a list of the largest remodeling companies in what were at the time the 50 largest remodeling markets, according to the Census Bureau. The underlying principle behind creating the list was that bigger is better and that, as the feature article that year put it, "companies that rise to the top in areas where business is strong and competition keen must be doing something right."

True enough. And there was plenty to be learned from that inaugural class of first-class companies. But there was also a problem inherent in the way the list was organized: 19 of the 50 markets were in just three states — California, New Jersey, and Florida. That left a lot of territory — and a lot of worthy remodeling companies — out in the cold.

So the next year, the Big50 took on its present form as a list of 50 of the best-run, most-profitable remodeling companies the editors could find. Over the years, the criteria have been refined, but the initial change created a formula that recognizes excellence regardless of size. It acknowledges achievement in every aspect of the business — sales, marketing, design, business savvy, personnel management — and recognizes the value of industry and community involvement. Most important, it opened the doors to hundreds of individuals and companies — there are more than 1,300 Big50 recipients to date — who deserved recognition for their achievements but who would otherwise have never been in the running.

Some of the Big50 are still big — the largest company in this year's class grossed $20 million in 2003 — but most are average-sized by today's standards, with total revenue in the $1 million to $2 million range. Six recipients had less than $1 million in revenue — the smallest had just $300,000 in sales last year. Obviously, it's not size that distinguishes these companies.

It isn't only the bottom line, either, although all of these companies meet or exceed rigorous financial benchmarks. What you'll find as you read through this year's list is a group of individuals who understand that success in the remodeling business depends on the character of relationships they build, not just with customers but with suppliers, trade partners, and, most important, with employees.

They are generous with their profits, sharing their financial success with the people who helped them achieve it. They are magnanimous with their time, spending hundreds of hours each year in community- and industry-based activities. And they are open with their expertise, mentoring team members and contributing to the free exchange of information.

For many, winning the Big50 is the culmination of many years' effort. In some cases, of a lifetime. But it is also a beginning. Joining the ranks of the Big50 means becoming a member of a community of professionals dedicated to improving themselves, each other, and the industry as a whole. It opens each year's class not just to the pages of this magazine but to a world of resources and alliances that otherwise might not be available.

Most important, it adds to the network of relationships among a group of extraordinary remodelers whose innovation and creativity will shape the future of the industry. Congratulations to the Big50 Class of 2004.