My wife's great-aunt Mary Bell was a character. When Katie and I got married in her small Southern town, all the tastefully dressed ladies in attendance clutched some demure purses. All but one, that is–Mary Bell carried her lipstick in a giant tote bag with "DAMN I'M GOOD" emblazoned on the side.

Judging the 2007 ProSales Excellence Awards were, from left, Bill Hofius, senior vice president, Ply Mart, Norcross, Ga.; Mike Butts, consultant and ProSales columnist, DeWitt, Mich.; Tim Espy, sales manager, Boone County Lumber, Columbia, Mo.; and Rick Davis, consultant and ProSales columnist, Chicago. Photo: Michael Starghill Mary Bell clearly felt she didn't need anyone's judgment to know her worth. The same holds true, I believe, for executives at some lumberyards, and it's easy to see why. If your LBM operation is still turning a profit in an era when so many other yards have been plowed under, it stands to reason you also will think, "Damn, I'm good," even if you don't go so far as to stencil those words on your windbreaker.

Sometimes, however, it makes sense to look beyond your balance sheet to get a feel for how you're doing. You can start doing that by turning to page 45 of this issue, where we honor the six winners and three honorable-mention recipients that won this year's ProSales Excellence Awards.

Their stories show how creativity and hard work can become the talk of the town. Our judges (pictured at right) rated the ads created for Franklin Building Supply in Boise, Idaho, as rivaling Super Bowl commercials in quality. The showroom that Keim Lumber put up in its tiny town (population 100) blew them away, and they chuckled over how an overly lifelike mannequin on JAY-K Lumber's billboards prompted some folks in town to call 911.

But there's one other quality that sets apart these winners–indeed, all of the contestants: they sought outside judgment of their performance. Most lumberyards fail to take advantage of the many resources available to assess their yard's current status and pick up ideas that can help them move ahead of the pack. Meanwhile, at most of the premier construction supply operations I visit, I'm likely to learn that a couple of their executives belong to industry roundtables, and attendance at a regional or national LBM association meeting is considered an opportunity rather than a burden. What the top-line yards get from those meetings won't convert into an immediate sale tomorrow, but often it does give them a long-term edge over their competitors.

And don't claim size or geography as an excuse; Sam Collins of S.W. Collins Lumber in Caribou, Maine, has to drive hundreds of miles just to meet most of his peers in Maine or visit trade shows in Boston, but he puts in the windshield time. I suspect that effort is a big reason why S.W. Collins prevails in an area where so many other local yards have failed.

Contests also can help you improve, and not just because winning them gives you bragging rights. ProSales has collected a hefty number of regional and national awards from business press groups over the years, including three prizes this summer in which I helped write the entries. Much as I enjoyed collecting the plaques, I found that filling out the application forms was a much greater reward, because it forced me to focus on why I thought our entries did our operation any good. How solid was our intent? How significant was the result? The act of having to explain to others what we were doing caused me to think about ProSales in a new light–and helped improve the results on subsequent projects.

You can meet many of the Excellence Awards winners in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 14 at a special ProSales breakfast for LBM executives who are attending the International Builders' Show. (See page 37 to sign up.) And I'll talk about these winners during my appearances at regional LBM association meetings this winter. Hopefully, the winners will inspire you to try some improvement at your operation.

And once you do, make sure to enter next year's Excellence Awards competition. Who knows? Maybe the judges will say of your entry, "Damn, they're good."