Years ago, lumberyard owners might have scoffed at the notion of employing a chief financial officer to manage their cash flows and balance the books. Even the title sounded way too highfalutin: CFOs were for banks and companies with offices downtown, not for lumberyards out by the rail spur.

But now that competition from big box stores and home centers–compounded by the recent plunge in housing construction–has prompted lumberyards to diversify, some operations are concluding that the numbers part of their businesses isn't solely about the cash register any more. An accountant or controller may no longer be enough.

Chief financial officers' work might still involve counting cash, but that's just the start. In fact, CFOs at lumberyards spend more time on strategy, forecasting market trends and collecting and managing data than they do on income and payroll. CFOs oversee accounting and collections (and often the human resources and information technology departments as well), help create operational strategies, maintain banking agreements, secure loans, arrange financing, handle insurance agreements, and scrutinize all contracts.

Decision Makers. What's required on the job varies, in part, according to the times. Todd Galbraith, CFO of Stewart Builder Supply, a $50 million, family-owned lumberyard operation in Dickson, Tenn., used to be consumed by information technology and the transition into new businesses. Now, with the tightening credit market, he says managing credit, risk, and cash flow is becoming paramount to his job.

Galbraith says that any analysis of whether an LBM operation should have a CFO can occur only after considering the skills–and temperament–of the company's owner and manager. "If it is a smaller company, a single owner who has good business acumen and pays attention to details can manage just fine without a CFO," Galbraith says. "But few have the desire or time to do it."

Barry Brockwell, executive vice president and CFO of Roper Lumber Co. in Colonial Heights, Va., says there are "huge advantages" to having a CFO, even in a small company. "Financial people think differently from entrepreneurs," he says. "But if you align those people, you make better decisions and get better profitability. It's going to cost a little, that's for sure, but you get what you pay for."

There's the rub. In today's tough market, where the first line of defense in lowering costs is to cut jobs, no CEO wants to hire a pricey executive. CFOs at companies doing $30 million or more in sales report salaries ranging from $85,000 and $125,000, according to a 2007 LBM survey coordinated by the Southern Building Material Association. The report, which garnered salary data from 15 states in addition to the SBMA's four states, shows CFOs who have CPA certification command wages in the higher end of the range, says association president Larry Adams.

To assess the pros and cons of adding a CFO to your executive lineup–or to see how your own CFO measures up–here are profiles of five financial execs running LBM operations of vastly different sizes.

–Kate Tyndall