Since being named Big50 in 1994, Pat Nicholson made the move from deck builder to franchise builder. The CEO of DeckMasters Technologies, Pittsburgh, started the regional franchise four years ago and now has seven franchisees in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. He runs one franchise in the township where he lives.

When he decided to build the deck franchise, he had to create one manual of his systems and a separate one for construction details. He wanted to communicate systems to franchisees to give them the opportunity to succeed. The manuals took him three years, working part-time, to complete.

The challenge, he says, was boiling 30 years of experience, including CR training and certification, into one place. "It has to cover the way you run your business — finance, production, selling," he says. "It reminded me of the saying, when you teach you learn."

Nicholson also learned about what systems didn't work and consulted with his staff for improvements.

"Even if you have a manager, you need written systems for your operation. If what you're thinking is not on paper, it remains a thought," he says. "You are not developing it in your company." The operations manual includes job descriptions for all positions, standard letters and forms, estimating sheets, an employee manual, and a section on subcontractor agreements.

Nicholson created the construction manual using a CAD system. It covers everything from typical deck framing to permits to structural engineering. He says the 3-D explanations for building decks make it easy for his franchisees to learn about quality and efficient building practices.