Faithful discharger of duties that range from feeding plants to feeding egos, the office manager (OM) often is key to a business's smooth functioning. To find out how crucial a role he or she plays -- and how an OM's functions are perceived -- Inc. surveyed a number of CEOs. Here are selected responses.

Gearcon General Contractors, in Albuquerque, a $3-million construction company with 16 to 35 employees.

Challenges: Making sure the office hums; helping supervisors in the field; troubleshooting; dealing with irate customers.

Specifics: Does payroll; files tax reports, makes cash deposits; keeps books; orders supplies; answers phones.

Qualities sought: Thick skin. There are crusty people in the construction business.

Job track: Hired as a receptionist/bookkeeper six years ago, was so good at those that she needed a challenge, so company kept throwing more stuff at her.

Inova Corp., in Charlottesville, Va., a $2-million electronic-display distributor with 15 employees.

Challenges: Handling crises, like making last-minute airfreight arrangements.

Specifics: Responds to customers; fields phone calls; supports clerical workers; directs traffic and logistics; tracks employee attendance; books travel; buys office supplies; does mail, shipping, and receiving; writes sales proposals.

Qualities sought: Good telephone manner and voice; maturity and sound judgment; ability to juggle lots of things.

Job track: Has had six OMs in seven years. Current OM does not handle financials or accounting (tried with previous OMs but didn't work out).

Landmark Systems, in Vienna, Va., a $45-million software developer with 250 employees (25 in the L.A. sales office, where the OM works).

Challenges: Communications (keeping everyone informed); boosting office morale.

Specifics: Is liaison with headquarters and the East and West coasts; oversees phone system; orders supplies; arranges events.

Qualities sought: Has to be jack-of-all-trades -- in a small way, he performs several people's jobs.

Job track: In early days, OM was secretary/bookkeeper; eventually became facilities manager.

Jacumin Engineering & Machine Co., in Icard, N.C., a $3-million textile-machinery manufacturer with 25 employees.

Challenges: Keeping up with government requirements; boosting morale.

Specifics: Handles safety requirements, insurance, taxes, and workers' compensation; is receptionist; runs payroll; invests cash; does clerical work and bookkeeping; works up quotes.

Qualities sought: Interest in all aspects of company; ability to talk to customers about problems; bookkeeping and investment knowledge.

Job track: Was third employee, has been sole OM for 25 years; so valued that OM is one of only five granted stock.

Ideal Computer Services, in Livermore, Calif., a $2.5-million computer-maintenance company with 21 employees.

Challenges: Handling strong personalities; getting out payables.

Specifics: Keeps books; handles accounts receivable and accounts payable; serves as backup receptionist.

Qualities sought: Strong bookkeeping background.

Job track: No longer exists: OM was laid off as part of cost cutting. Partners split chores, admit monthly tracking of accounts receivable and payable has fallen behind.

-- Researched by Susan Greco and Christopher Caggiano