To call upscale remodeling a volatile business understates the case. With cash constantly flowing in and out, one missed draw can cause big problems.

“Things can get tight really quickly,” says Michael Strong of Brothers Strong in Houston. “It happens all the time. You get a call from a client saying, ‘I'm really sorry, I forgot to leave the check, and we're on our way out of town. I'll be back with your $20,000 next week.”

But employees don't want excuses on payday. “The bottom line,” Strong says, “is that you've got to make payroll.”

Establishing a reputation for reliable payment, upscale remodelers agree, is vital to maintaining employee loyalty. Beyond keeping staff happy, owners say being known for reliability earns a company the kind of reputation that reaps tangible benefits. Peter Feinmann, owner of Feinmann Remodeling in Arlington, Mass., says being known as a stalwart means that people come to you. “I've hired three people in the last year who were starting families and wanted the stability of an organization like ours,” Feinmann says.

Saving regularly and not squandering profits on unnecessary expenses is one way that upscale remodelers make sure they never miss a payday. “The first step to making payroll is not going out and buying a new vehicle or going on vacation just because you have a little money,” Feinmann says. “Set a savings goal based on past performance and make sure you meet it every month.”

Feinmann tries to keep 10% of his company's average $4 million revenues as cash in the bank. The reserve bailed him out after September 11, when, he says, “The phone didn't ring for three months.” Even then, he never once held up pay.

Opening a line of credit is another popular choice. Brothers Strong pays 8% interest on a $60,000-limit line that the company uses when cash falls short of payroll.

It's important to establish credit before you need it, Strong says. “What you've got to have in place is a track record of borrowing and paying. Don't wait until you need $20,000 to go to the bank.”

But although credit essentially provides the same safety net as cash does, carrying long-term balances won't win you any favors with the lender. “The bank doesn't like you to use [your credit] as a long-term loan. It's not supposed to be an uncollateralized loan,” Strong says.

Brothers Strong also maintains a cash savings, depositing a small percentage of monthly profits. “Ideally,” Strong says, “you should have both.”