I use 10% of what Excel will do, and the average person probably uses 2%,” says Ed Castle, owner of Ed Castle Construction, a design/build firm in Kensington, Md. Castle creates fairly sophisticated spreadsheets and uses the software, which is a part of Microsoft Office, as a project manager system. He has eliminated what he calls “redundant clerical work” by inputting administrative information such as name and address of homeowners and suppliers only once but having it appear on all necessary documents.

At Donatelli Castillo Builders in San Jose, Calif., Excel is used for everything from estimating, creating financial reports, organizing historical workers compensation information, and reconciling the year-end audit for insurance and vacation days to collating results on employee reviews, job progress notes, and reports to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) board.

Kirk Van Camp at Mark IV Builders, Bethesda, Md., says he uses Excel every day in some capacity — for preliminary and contract budgets as well as for tracking and monthly flash reports. “It's a powerful program,” Van Camp says.

Getting from a simple spreadsheet to charts, graphs, and “what if” calculations takes some time and patience, but it's worth the effort, and, once learned, using the software is not difficult. Van Camp suggests reading Estimating With Microsoft Excel: Unlocking the Power for Home Builders by Jay Christofferson. “It comes with a CD and shows you a lot of tips and tricks, how to make macros and set up formulas,” Van Camp says.

Chris Donatelli says his staff learned Excel by “seat of the pants and the help menu,” which is a good resource that links you to the Microsoft Office Web site. There are also various Web sites, as well as local colleges and high schools that offer tutorials, often free. Dave Alpert of Continuum Marketing, an expert user who works with many remodeling companies, suggests sitting down with someone using it for a similar business. However you learn best, it's worth spending the time to get the most out of something you most likely already have on hand.

These charts show what Kirk Van Camp, estimator for Mark IV Builders, Bethesda, Md., calls a “30,000-foot-view” of your business. An administrative assistant creates them using Microsoft Excel 2003, included with Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Edition. To create a chart: Import from a database or manually enter the information you want to chart into a blank Excel worksheet. Then, insert a second empty worksheet and use the “Insert > Chart” command to create a chart. When specifying the data range for the second chart, use the data you entered in the first worksheet. Charting leads, design agreements, and contract signings helps Mark IV visualize sales and marketing strategies' effectiveness. Including a data table with your chart offers more specific information that doesn't distract from the “big picture” view.

Breakdowns, such as where leads and sales come from, give insight into fine tuning marketing and sales processes. Separate pages avoid clutter and confusion. Excel also integrates with other Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Streets and Trips — which was used to generate the map — and Microsoft SQL Server, the database software Mark IV used to track this data.