Three or four years ago, Mark Richardson, co-chairman of Case Design/Remodeling and Case Handyman & Remodeling Services, and a REMODELING columnist, says he would have predicted that the “little guy would be saying, ‘I surrender.’”

But not now. “In many ways [those remodelers] have been more focused,” Richardson adds. “The large companies [over $10 million] are positioned to get larger. It’s the midsize companies that seem to get more beat up in battle.”

“The message from this recession,” says Kermit Baker, director of remodeling futures for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, “is [that] you need to stay small and nimble to survive.”

By necessity — because they have been working on fewer and smaller jobs — remodeling companies downsized to stay afloat during the recession. And it isn’t just about shedding employees; many remodelers have decreased office space or moved back to a home office, negotiated rental and cell phone agreements, tightened systems — gotten back to basics. “Those who come through this recession,” says Linda Case, founder of Remodelers Advantage, and a REMODELING columnist, “will be poised to do well. They will have improved systems, and they’ve had to go back and sharpen their selling skills and relearn how to market .... They’ve taken their staffs down to the best of the best.” Remodelers will consider lessons learned when they determine the size and makeup of their companies as they wade into 2010.

Kyle T. Webster

Staff Mix

In many design/build firms, designers had to be let go and, until the economy picks up, remodelers are wary about rehiring. David Adams, owner of Design Builders & Remodeling, in Sandy Hook, Conn., went from 2 1/2 designers to 1 1/2, and although he kept his showroom, it is not staffed, and visits are for design/build clients by appointment only. Bob DuBree, president of Creative Contracting, in Philadelphia, let go both of his designers. He developed a relationship with a CAD designer with whom he subcontracts, and he has been able to share the services of another designer with several other remodeling companies. He plans to stick with this model until the economy improves.

When it comes to the field, some remodeling company owners have gone back to swinging a hammer, and many seem to be reshuffling staff. Before the recession there was a strong move toward the project manager model (as opposed to the lead carpenter model), says Tim Faller, owner of Field Training Services, in Westerley, R.I., and a REMODELING columnist as well. There weren’t enough lead carpenters for the numerous boom-time jobs, so they were asked to take off their belts and become project managers. Then the recession made jobs scarcer and smaller — creating less of a need for project managers. Some company owners laid off employees and began using more trade partners, with project managers or supervisors running jobs. Some went back to the lead carpenter system. Although Faller maintains that there is a place for both models, he believes that “the lead carpenter system can and should come back in full force. ... Companies need someone who can interact with clients and make decisions on-site.”

At Fisher Group, in Annandale, Va., where they downsized from 18 to eight employees during the past three years, partner Peggy Fisher would agree with Faller. In fact, as her company slowly gets more jobs, Fisher foresees the need for one or two more field people with “both skill-sets” — management and carpentry — “which is not easy to find.” To prepare employees, the company has been training them in weekly meetings to improve their ability to make decisions on the job.