Geno Benvenuto is his affability. But he turns the oft-used quip about nice guys finishing last on its head. As owner of Benvenuti & Stein, Benvenuto has grown his Evanston, Ill., company from the blue-sky dreams of a 20-something carpenter to a profitable design/build company on course to take in $9 million this year.

B&S has found its niche in the traditional and somewhat conservative metro-Chicago market by offering an expensive, custom-made product. But when Benvenuto started out, with high-school friend and drywaller Jeff Stein — whom he eventually bought out, retaining the then-established name — he did what he calls “odd jobs.”

The company took off after the pair built a garage and did landscaping and terracing for a Winnetka realtor, who began to promote them. “That was where we planted the seeds for what Benvenuti & Stein became,” Benvenuto says.

Born in Italy, Benvenuto came to the U.S. when he was five, and lived in Wilmette, Ill. Later, he worked in construction to put himself through college, and eventually took architectural and drawing classes. With remodeling he discovered his calling: “I found something I was actually good at and felt confident in, and it just flowed. It became a passion. I was the laborer, the carpenter, the everything. Toolbelt by day and sketch pad at night,” he says.

Already in 1978 he was putting the words “design” and “construction” on his signs, an early entry into Chicago's design/build market. By 1981 he took off the toolbelt and says that he hasn't put it on since. “When the wave struck, I was naked in the water,” he says. But within a few years “I realized that I needed an organization.”

Getting there was more difficult than he imagined. He purchased $6,000 worth of tools from a cabinet shop that was going under. Two cabinet makers stayed on with him, thus solidifying one of B&S' signature areas of expertise. Quality craftsmanship was, and still is, the main event. Benvenuto admits that making money “was not high on my list.” This nearly proved fatal when, in 1985, a bookkeeper absconded with funds. Benvenuto says that members of his peer review group and a client who lent him some money pulled him through.

Ben White was hired not long after as a member of the design staff, and in eight years had risen to his current position as vice president. “Geno needed the opportunity to work on the organization and not in it, and I'd like to think I afforded him that chance,” White says. As Benvenuto's foil, White says he sometimes feels “like an inside consultant, a colleague who allows Geno to do a little thinking out loud.”

It's this balance between Benvenuto, the classic self-made entrepreneur, and the more literal-minded White, that helps propel B&S forward. Says White, “Geno and I look at almost every issue from a different perspective because we're very different people. That's the strength of the relationship. But we share both trust and a common purpose.” They personify what author Stephen Covey says about good teamwork: “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”

Teamwork is a hallmark of B&S. “My goal,” says Benvenuto, “is to continue to build an organization that will take care of its people. I want to create opportunities for them.”

What starts at the top spreads to the company's 46 employees. “It's a good company to work for,” says Jeff Herberholz, an architect and the current head of the design department. “Geno makes every effort to nurture it like family. He's not shy about getting involved in something, but he lets people follow their own instincts.” Roberta Lamerdin, head of the home maintenance department, also speaks warmly of their “great team of conscientious people.”