By Jim Cory Pam Miller, owner of Alchemy Construction in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Big 50 1997), likes her company's size right where it is --under a half-million dollars. She's owned her company for 15 years (before that she was a union carpenter) and usually operates with a single apprentice. She sells, estimates, designs, and builds her projects, in addition to marketing and running the office. She specializes in kitchens and baths but sometimes takes on larger projects, for which she relies on a network of subcontractors.

Monitor costs

Miller says there are two tricks to staying small and profitable: low overhead and obsessive planning. She saves money by having her office, shop, and materials and equipment storage on her property. Throughout the year, she monitors overhead expenses, "evaluating all items to see if any adjustments or deletions need to be made."

Miller has gradually reduced marketing expenses by developing a "really nice referral base." Her marketing consists of Christmas cards, ads in the Yellow Pages and a local home improvement guide, plus signs on her two trucks. "It's cheap and it works," she says.

Plan to the Nth degree

Miller's found that unexpected problems on a job are what lead to increased job costs and diminished profits. "How you run your jobs will determine how profitable you'll be," she says.

[Photo: Compoa]

Along with figuring out how long a job will take, she calculates the amount of time for picking up materials, setting up and breaking down tools and equipment, and supervising subcontractors and coordinating building inspections, as well as daily and final job clean up and miscellaneous touch-ups. Before the job begins, all paperwork is signed and special order materials are on site and inspected for damage. Subcontractors are scheduled, and homeowners are notified of what needs to be moved and when. Just in case, Miller builds extra time into the schedule, and in the event of delays, notifies homeowners immediately.