Packaged programs that purport to run an entire business from a microcomputer inevitably can't, argues Bob Antley, founder of Antley Business Systems, a Minneapolis consulting firm. "A business succeeds because how it does things is dictated by the genius of the person who put the business together. It's a rare off-the-shelf product that does things that way." Could be that Antley's biased: he gets $150 an hour writing start-to-finish databases for companies frustrated by store-bought systems. But sometimes he and independent developers like him can pay for themselves.

Case in point: At Third Street Sportswear, a $5.5-million garment maker in Ozark, Mo., owner Brad Thomas orchestrates a just-in-time operation. Keeping no inventory, he relies on detailed time and materials projections for more than 3,000 production variables, order by order. In earlier years the back office kept track of them manually, with pencil and paper. "But as we continued to grow, entering everything by hand got ridiculous," Thomas says. He tried a packaged program, only to find that it, too, required that the same figures be entered repeatedly. There's got to be a better way to let a computer compute, Thomas thought.

There was. In 1989, as Thomas passed the $3-million mark, he turned to Helix Technology, in Northbrook, Ill. Helix referred him to Antley. "Here's how we track locations of products; this is how we measure where we are in the manufacturing process; these are the reports we need," Thomas said. "Can you give them all back to me?" Over the next three years Antley worked with Third Street, studying the components of its operations, then splicing in features to control them.

The software cost about $60,000, all told. Today a dozen networked Macintoshes spew out whatever information employees need to produce and ship an order. And data are entered only once, when the order is booked. The variables that follow -- yards of each type of fabric required, length and color of zippers, labeling content, shipping instructions, invoices, even financials -- are generated automatically. If the methods by which Third Street does business are substantively changed, or if the sales department merely wants to track the birthdays of its customers to send them cards, Antley can tune the program by telephone.

Antley's minimum charge for a customized system is around $30,000, presuming the business is well organized. "If we get into a situation where things don't run smoothly and we spend time just consulting on work-flow and organizational problems, the bucks can really build up," he cautions. Thomas was willing to spend them. Now, he crows, "we have a system that does business the way we do it -- not the way some packaged software thinks we should."

Even so, was customization worth its hefty price? "That $60,000 is what I'd be paying each year for extra office help if we hadn't customized," Thomas claims.

For names of independent Macintosh programmers, contact Apple Computer at 800-538-9696; for IBM programmers, call 800-426-2468. -- Robert A. Mamis