CAMDENTON, Mo. (AP) _ In the fiercely competitive greeting card industry, Among Friends is a grain of sand on a beach dominated by giants like Hallmark Cards, American Greetings and Gibson Greetings.

But the alternative card company, which was formed two years ago by three women in this Lake of the Ozarks community in central Missouri, has set some lofty goals.

''People say, 'Oh, is your goal to have Hallmark buy you out?' I say, 'no, our goal is to buy Hallmark,' '' Claudia Parrish, one of the company's founders, said with a poker face.

She quickly breaks into a smile and laughs at the thought of the tiny, anonymous firm gobbling up Hallmark, the industry leader, which reportedly notched $1.25 billion in greeting card sales last year.

But Parrish and her partners, Roxie Kelly and Shelly Reeves-Smith, are serious about carving their own niche in a market ruled by huge corporations.

In just a couple of years, Among Friends has expanded from selling a few cards in local shops to marketing a line of 36 all-occasion cards, gift tags, decorative bags and a card-organizing notebook in 48 states, Japan and England. The company is working to expand that line.

Parrish, the company's business manager, says Among Friends tripled its sales in the past year and now has about 1,300 accounts. She refused to disclose any figures.

''We don't even want them to know we exist,'' added Reeves-Smith.

Rudolf Hokanson, who tracks the greeting card industry for Blunt Ellis & Loewy in Milwaukee, said the company has one advantage: alternative cards are the fastest growing segment of the industry.

''It's impossible to say whether (Among Friends) will survive,'' Hokanson said. ''It's a competitive field, and there are a lot of quality players. Like with any business, if they have a good management team and marketing people . . . I think they've got a chance.''

The women say they are somewhat surprised at the company's limited success considering the mistakes they made in the early going.

''We knew nothing about the greeting card industry,'' Kelly recalled. ''We made some of the worst mistakes you can imagine. But the cards sold anyway. It was amazing how much people liked them.''

The women say the company name was a natural because of their long friendships.

Kelly, 35, a former physical education teacher, used to own a popular restaurant and a combination gourmet bakery-gift shop at the lake. She handles marketing duties and maintains contact with about 35 sales representatives.

Parrish, 49, was a hostess at the restaurant and a business partner in a cookbook Kelly wrote and sold. She keeps a close eye on the finances.

The artist, Reeves-Smith, 24, was a student of Kelly's and later worked in her restaurant and bakery. A longtime friend of the Parrish family, Reeves- Smith also designed the cover of her friends' cookbook.

Kelly and Parrish credit Reeves-Smith, a 1988 art graduate, for much of Among Friends' success.

Reeves-Smith works with colored pencils and ink to design ''subjects that conjure up soothing, pleasant feelings, like a hat box, an old clock, a New England house - that's the style I feel most comfortable with.''

The result is detailed, intimate cards featuring a soft, water-color appearance.

The message inside is often inspirational, featuring classic poems or a verse the women came up with themselves. Some contain a favorite recipe, like Kelly's blueberry-peach-cinnamon muffins.

The women say that even though they work so closely together they've managed to stay good friends.

''We don't always agree, but we respect each other for our individual talents and opinions,'' Kelly said. ''We were friends before we were partners and we want it to stay that way.''