By Joseph F. Schuler Jr.. After Scott Strawbridge won Big50 in 1997 with then-partner Guy Rock, his company took another award, as Florida's twenty-second fastest-growing company. But the 280% increase in revenues -- from $600,000 to $1.68 million -- that got Scott Strawbridge Inc. of Wilton Manors on the fast growers list just about killed the company's namesake.

"Worst year of my life," Strawbridge says. He suffered a 5% net loss, not including lost owner's compensation. Negative cash flow; the loss of 16 employees over several years; and working the kinks out of a "no training" lead carpenter system and a kitchen/bath design/build focus could discourage any owner. Quietly, Rock left in 2001.

It was Strawbridge's career low. But as sole owner, and after hospitalization for symptoms mimicking a heart attack, he looked long and hard at himself and his company. He took the "opportunity" to re-tool. "I'm not a quitter," he says. One day at a time, he learned about total quality and open book management and about providing measurements for staff to see company improvement. He decided he needed a culture where the team participated in the company. He formed a steering committee. He focused the team's personal development. The committee built an operations manual, creating systems they believed in, and set up a bonus program that in 2002 gave incentives to department heads and lead carpenters based on gross profit.

Profit margins grew to 10% and overhead decreased by 5%. Strawbridge paid out $15,000 to six key employees. Quarterly, the staff looks at gross sales, gross profit, operating expenses, and net profit. He's now implementing job costing, with each job's gross and net profit analyzed.

Strawbridge is working less. So far this year, he's taken three weeks of vacation, and he usually returns to a nearly empty desk. He works every day on the business, not in it. Volume for the now-20-year-old company is projected at a pain-free $2.35 million. And, "I like to come to work every day," Strawbridge says.