Her Business Is Her Castle

Cusumano's blueprint? Think small and network

Twenty-eight-year-old Julie Cusumano has dug 20-foot trenches and waded through rivers of wet concrete. Still, none of those feats took as much guts as her biggest building project: starting Castle Contracting, a 22-employee, $3 million construction and engineering firm in St. Louis. "What I learned from engineering is problem-solving," says the soft-spoken Cusumano. "You can look at a huge problem, break it down bit by bit, and solve it."

After earning a civil-engineering degree at Purdue University, Cusumano took jobs with giant engineering firms. But it didn't take long to see the frustrations of corporate life, "watching 15 managers ahead of me all vying for the same position," she says.

In 1995, wIth $5,000, she and a veteran construction exec founded Castle to serve electrical contractors. After five months, her partner split, leaving the fledgling business for dead. "She stuck it out," says Brent Koch, whose Condaire Inc. has usEd Castle for 10 subcontracting jobs. Concentrating on tiny projects, such as gutters and ditches, Cusumano logged a decent first-year profit on revenues of $280,000.

Despite her growing experience, Cusumano still had to surmount the industry's backhoe braggadocio. "I was asked too many times if I was a secretary," she recalls. Unbowed, she nEtworked, becoming a gabby mainstay at three local contractors' associations, where she has drawn 75% of her 40 clients.br>

While other subcontractors might base a bid on back-of-the-envelope guesses, Castle's $30,000 accounting software monitors every dollar. That helps the company submit winning and profitable offers without underbidding.

Cusumano's favorite project: the foundations under a new electrical substation for the city's largest hospital. "I love to look at a building and say: `I built that."' She feels the same about her Castle.

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