A reckless man inspired this month's cover story. On a lumberyard visit a few years back, senior editor Andy Carlo saw a yard employee standing on the tines of a forklift high in the air, holding down a pallet of 2x4s as the machine rolled across the yard. With the man's back to the forklift's path, one false move could have resulted in doom. Luckily, he didn't get hurt, but his act prompted Carlo to investigate the state of safety at LBM operations nationwide.

Craig Webb Photo: James Kegley Carlo's report shows that while the accident rate at lumberyards has fallen over the years, thousands of incidents–even deaths–still occur. It's probable that some accidents still happen because some lumberyards aren't always vigilant about safety.

Some LBM operations may witness tragedy despite their best efforts to promote a safe workplace. Other yards, such as the one Carlo visited, might look safer than they are because an accident somehow didn't occur. Being proactive helps, but dumb luck also plays a part.

Lady Luck's capricious nature is notable in other ways as well during this housing downturn. Atlanta is the only area in the country to have two lumberyards, Ply Mart and Robert Bowden Inc., win ProSales' Dealer of the Year award, and Wheeler's was No. 24 on the ProSales 100 last year. But over the past 18 months, Ply Mart has collapsed, Wheeler's went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Robert Bowden's 2007 sales sank nearly 35%. Add to that Jasper Lumber (sold to ProBuild) and HD Supply's LBM operations (ditto) and it gets hard to believe that each of these companies turned stupid simultaneously. Outside forces caused their turmoil.

Meanwhile, I've talked to some small dealers from the upper Midwest who noted quietly that they're holding steady or even growing these days. Is it because of their superior management? Perhaps. But it's more likely because competitors like ProBuild and 84 Lumber closed nearby yards, handing market share to the small guys.

Business consultants, sports coaches, and Oprah Winfrey are apt to cite aphorisms declaring luck is the residue of hard work, luck comes to those who seek it, luck comes when preparation meets opportunity, etc. But some luck is purely random. And while longtime observers of lumber dealers tell me that LBM executives may concede the notion that there's a bullet out there with their name on it, these dealers prefer instead to believe that their fortune is a thing of their own making. Thus, when they encounter failure, they think it's their fault.

This feeling can be compounded at family-run lumberyards, where many executives grew up in the business and view themselves as caretakers of a family tradition and keystones of the community. As a result, the observers say, when the company vanishes, it's common for the company's execs to vanish as well, avoiding the Rotary Club, chamber of commerce, and lumberyard association meetings. Failure stinks–or so they suspect.

I used to think that way, too. In the 1970s, at the start of my career, it was typical to meet reporters who hadn't changed employers in 30 years. Things didn't turn out that way for me. Of the seven news organizations I worked at before arriving at ProSales, four went out of business, two were downsized, and the seventh–The Wall Street Journal–looks set for big change now that Rupert Murdoch controls it. I jumped ship before three operations went under, and was reorganized out of my job at one. I still mourn those now-defunct publications, but over the years I've learned to stop burying myself with them. There's a difference between me and my company.

For all that tumult, I've had a wonderful professional life, and I owe it all to the dumb luck of meeting an editor at a journalism society conference the same day I was thinking of taking a job at a small-town Indiana newspaper, working for a boss I knew I would dislike. Thanks to that editor, I took another route that led to Italy and a whole different life–one that brought me 30 years later to this publication and to you. That's dumb luck, indeed.

–Craig Webb, Editor
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