Tim Cross went into business for himself right out of high school. This was back in 1989, when a recession was wiping out construction firms like a plague in Rumson, N.J., and nationwide. Not an ideal time for a beginner to start his own company, but Cross made it happen.

He began by subcontracting for an insurance underwriter. A smart decision because fire isn't a cyclical phenomenon. Cross did most everything on those early jobs, from tiling to laying hardwood to the finish carpentry that would become his company's trademark. Early success led to more and larger jobs. The work came steadily and soon Cross needed help.

Shiho Fukada, WpN

Because business was so slow for almost everyone else, Cross found himself with an unusually deep pool of talent to draw from. “In 1990, I put an ad in the paper. I got 70 calls from carpenters,” he says, shocked more now than then at the fortune of his timing. “There were so many good people out of work.”

Working with skilled old hands gave the young Cross the best training imaginable. Having top-tier talent at his disposal also meant he could execute up to his own exacting standards. With a steady stream of work and some of the best carpenters around building it, Merrick Construction took off. Cross attributes his early success to a willingness to accept the consequences of leadership.

“I've always been one for taking responsibility,” he says. “I like to make the call and be responsible for that call. A lot of these guys I was hiring [during the recession] — none of them wanted that responsibility. I would just let them do the work and watch what they were doing. I picked up a tremendous amount from them, and they didn't have to decide exactly what to do because that was my job. It worked out well.”

TORTOISE BECOMES THE HARE Today Merrick Construction employs 11; 3 in the office, 1 project supervisor, and 7 skilled finish carpenters. Everything else, from framing to roofing, is subcontracted. The company earns about $6 million a year from new homes and remodeling, generally splitting time about 70/30 in favor of remodeling. Except for small jobs done as favors to past customers, Merrick Construction's work is exclusively upscale and often complex. Cross began pursuing high-end clients right after he made the transition from restoration to full-service construction.

It didn't take long for Merrick Construction's reputation and revenue to grow. Between 1997 and 2001, Cross says, his company's gross increased 50% every year, cracking the $1 million mark in 2000. But Cross was a tortoise at heart. Growth was always controlled and he never overextended his company.