When John Hampton and his wife, Jane, went looking for a place to start a business five years ago, they found exactly what they wanted in Prince William County--nothing.

"It was a smaller pond to fish in, we thought inevitably it had to grow," Hampton said. Owning a business in that smaller pond has been the key to the success of Express Personnel Services, a placement agency.

Hampton and his wife moved to the area after living in England for 20 years and found a market devoid of competition and ready to grow quickly. They bought a franchise of the national staffing company--and dreamed big.

"All the hopes and assumptions we had about setting up here have come true," he said.

The Hamptons' story is familiar to dozens of businesses that have formed in Prince William County in the past decade, one marked, for better or worse, by a continual change from the rural to the commercial. The change has been a boon to entrepreneurs riding the growth.

The Hamptons' franchisor, Oklahoma-based Express Personnel Services, which has about 400 offices throughout the United States and about 100 overseas, has found a perfect home in Manassas, near Interstate 66. After looking at Fairfax County and other areas inside the Capital Beltway for their company's launch, the Hamptons decided on putting down roots in Prince William.

"Even today, [Prince William County] is only at the beginning of our potential," Hampton said. "There is still lots of green space waiting to be built out."

And although Express Personnel Services was not the first staffing company to settle in the county, it has not had problems finding area clients, or local residents to fill the positions.

"Being in the staffing business, we wanted to be close to where people live. There are lot of housing developments around here," he said.

Express Personnel Services draws workers almost exclusively from the county and the Manassas and Gainesville areas. But it wasn't long ago that the only workers going to the company were on the western side of the county. But with the county's growth, the company has also grown.

"When we first started in 1994, almost exclusively people were from this end of the county," said Hampton. "But as soon as the Prince William Parkway opened, all of a sudden people in Woodbridge and Dumfries had a safe way to get to the other end of the county."

They found clients, said Hampton, by simply calling local businesses. "We weren't the first staffing company in Manassas," Hampton said. "But slowly but surely, you find people who need to fill an assignment."

Express has placed about 2,000 people in more than 375 companies throughout the area since it opened five years ago, Hampton said. And the company has grown about 25 percent each year, until this year, which stayed on par with 1998.

"Ironically, the economy's too good. There aren't enough people to fill the slots," Hampton said. This year's sales total about $2 million.

The Hamptons have been forced to change the mission of the company because of the economy as well. With companies scrambling for workers during a time of record low unemployment rates--4.1 percent for the Washington area-- about 75 percent to 80 percent of Express's placement is full time.

"A lot of companies realize that when they go through the recruiting process themselves, they can spend hours and hours trying to fill a position. Or they can turn to a staffing company like us," Hampton said. "They realize that it's easier to farm out to us because we're specialists at it."

Color Me Beautiful, a private makeup and skin care company based in Chantilly, has used Express for a couple of years to fill every slot, including product managers, customer service representatives, data entry specialists and receptionists.

"We pretty much get all administrative and receptionists from them," said Regina Barthlow, assistant to the chief executive of Color Me Beautiful, who didn't have the exact number of employees obtained through Express. She said working with Express saves the company a lot of time.

"That used to be my job. Now they do everything," Barthlow said. "They collect the resumes; they screen them. It's a lot less work for us."

Express concentrates exclusively on placing administrative and office support, including accounting, administrative assistants and some technology positions. The company does not get involved in executive or industrial placement.

Hampton, who is also president of the Prince William/66 Partnership, a nonprofit business group that encourages economic development in the western end of the county, said he has seen more small businesses thriving in the county since he moved here.

"A good example is that office furniture and services companies have been moving in," he said. "When we moved here five years ago, there were only two local places to buy photocopiers. Now I already know of at least three or four new ones who have moved into the area. They're coming here because they know more business is coming here. It becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy."

CAPTION: After looking at Fairfax County and other areas for their company's site, Jane and John Hampton chose Prince William, "a smaller pond to fish in."