When business slows down or cash gets tight, remodelers tend to look for ways to save money. They lay off carpenters, slash marketing dollars, lower margins on bids, and perhaps even strap on their old toolbelts. It's instinctive. It's immediate. And sometimes it's completely wrong.

MARKETING MELTDOWN When you try to save money by not spending money, you often compound the very problems you set out to avoid. Instead, look at spending as an investment rather than as just an expense.

During business slumps, it's tempting to dip into your marketing budget to pay the mounting bills. That's reacting, not investing. At the very least, you want a sustained presence in good times and bad, and you want to put aside those marketing dollars ahead of time to do it.

Market steadily, and you may be the one remodeler who's getting all the attention. You become top of mind when clients, however few, do think about remodeling. Your asset-based mentality turns into potential business for your team.

CONSISTENT PRESENCE In my region of the country, the majority of contractors rely on newspaper advertising to market themselves. Come summer, the ad pages are thick with ink for contractors and home improvement experts. Business is in full bloom, and so is competition. Then winter approaches, and advertising goes into hibernation. The newspaper thins out around the same time that remodeling jobs dwindle.

This scenario was magnified after 9/11. My company experienced a major downturn, as did the entire industry. I began to see weak signals: The inflow of new work was disappearing, and clients were canceling or postponing their projects. I observed, and other contractors confirmed, that new prospects were lowering their budgets and average job sizes were shrinking. By mid-January of the following year, sales dried up. We didn't sell more than $15,000 between January 15 and March 1 of 2002.

But thanks to my asset-based mentality, I was in a position to weather the storm that followed. Having actively marketed my company for years, I had built a steady backlog of jobs. Moreover, I put a lot of personal money back into the business. We continued to advertise. We went after repeat business with happy customers in a more personal way. We embraced low-cost professional jobsite marketing — even placing magnetic signs on Dumpsters, with permission from our Dumpster vendor.

It was aggressive, it was risky, and it brought our team together like never before. Everyone was helping the business to realize every penny.

FRONT-LINE FAUX PAS Your team, by the way, shouldn't be short-staffed by the very people who can do the work. In a serious budget crunch, don't lower your overhead by laying off your carpenters. They are your skilled workers, the ones you want to keep forever, the people who complete the work that enables you to pay for overhead in the first place.

After the terrorist attacks, I invested in my team. I collaborated with them, showed them the books, did my most aggressive pro-forma for the months ahead, and solicited their ideas for every additional way to market our company.

To save on our bottom line, we cut back on subcontractors. People who had moved up in management went back into the field, if only temporarily, to help justify their salaries.

Rather than cut people, we built loyalty. Rather than cross our fingers and hope to survive, we grabbed onto every job and tackled it to the best of our abilities. Rather than fade away as a business, we made our presence visible in every way.

The efforts paid off. All said and done, our assets had increased in value. We were already ready for the next boom.

Shawn McCadden, recently sold his Arlington, Mass.-based employee-managed design/build remodeling business. In his second career, he is director of business innovations for DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen by Worldwide. shawnm@charter.net.