Kyle Hilton Millennials are more digitally connected and driven by their devices than previous generations, but they're also career-focused and looking for growth.

Welcome to the next generation: Millennials have arrived. Born between the early ’80s and late ’90s, they’ve grown up with personal computers, the Internet, Facebook, and Google. When it comes to the workplace, they’re typecast as socially conscious, hard workers who disdain hierarchy as they seek a broad and sometimes undefined work-life balance. That’s mostly, although not entirely, true when it comes to millennials in the lumber business.

Even as large numbers assimilate into the employee ranks of pro dealers and their contractor customers alike, millennials have yet to mature to decision-making career levels in the industry—not that they aren't hungry for the inevitable transfer of power. Plugged into technology, motivated by principles, and confident in their ability to visualize and master complex ideas, the demographic is the industry’s number one change driver, and one that supply chain veterans think is the greatest recent opportunity to pass on—and enhance—institutional and generational knowledge.

Just don’t call them millennials. Considered cringe-worthy at best, the moniker to many is a pejorative that carries ageist labels of narcissism and entitlement. “It’s not that they just don’t want to be called millennials—they don’t want to be isolated and treated differently from any other age brackets at all, and that’s good news,” says Rachel Smith, marketing and communications manager for Nashville, Tenn.-based LP Building Products.

While most pro dealers don’t have the corporate resources to throw into market research and brand loyalty programs dedicated to entire age demographics, national vendors like LP often do. Their reach often blankets digital brand marketing of building products to consumers while engaging with a fair share of pro contractors, too.

“We’re spending a lot of research time in the field to discover day-to-day customer behaviors and how they inform product and service selection,” Smith says. “Millennials have brought huge shifts in the construction industry, beginning with the need to cut through the noise and reach the smartphones and tablets in contractor gloveboxes and on the jobsite. It is interesting to see how that has changed the sales process.”

Millennials may seem like a foreign species, but many of their goals and desires aren’t so different from their elders’, though their ways of communicating may be. To bridge the generation gap and maximize the next generation’s potential, consider these four lessons.

1. They Drive Culture Changes
When marketing director Jim Carpenter started at Ballston Spa, N.Y.-based Curtis Lumber 12 years ago, connectivity meant having a Nextel walkie-talkie. Connectivity today is an entire thought process involving multiple technologies and communication channels, a shift that Carpenter attributes directly to millennial cultural influence.

“While they’re not necessarily in decision-making roles at our customer companies yet, they’re definitely driving changes in customer behavior,” Carpenter says. Critically for Curtis Lumber, expectations regarding real-time inventory, order fulfillment, and delivery information have the dealer investing into a multi-year update of the company’s point of sale system.

“That thirst for immediacy is being driven by millennials,” Carpenter says. “The Gen X-ers may be the ones making decisions, but it’s the next generation down that is often driving the thought process.”

Until the next-gen point of sales system goes live, Curtis OSRs will continue to communicate info to contractors of all ages via phone, email and, increasingly, text. “There are some customers our sales team will text back and forth all day long,” Carpenter says. “It has emerged as a good way to communicate information in a quick, clear way to all age groups.”

Steve Patterson is the CEO for Central Valley, a five-unit pro dealer based in Napa, Calif., that had 2016 sales of $112 million. Central Valley’s pro customers are predominantly wine country custom home builders and remodelers, with the occasional regional production builder in the mix.

Virtually all of them are still run by Gen X-ers and boomers in leadership capacities. As a result, millennials have yet to become a primary point of contact for direct sales, but nevertheless have forced the adoption of new technologies and demanded humanism from corporate culture.

“Millennials have not yet stepped into those key positions as a rule, but they are not far off, with many now in their late 20s and early 30s,” Patterson says. “Yes, being technology averse is a millennial turn-off, but fundamentally the generation’s driver is less about technology and more about using a variety of different tools to achieve what they want as human beings. They are still seeking things that any employee or customer is, and empathy is a word we focus on as a company to help guide that search. It resonates quite loudly with this age bracket.”

2. They Search for Purpose
Patterson and other pro dealers say millennial culture has most directly impacted LBM in the HR department, where Central Valley has evolved its strategic focus on long-term talent management. “We’re taking a harder look at all of the components important to human capital, including how we hire, coach, meet career expectations, and even design succession planning,” Patterson says. “We’ve recognized that if we are going to continue the business into the future it's incumbent on us to develop, train, and make our millennial employees successful.”

Not that the task is easy. While modern job listing and recruitment tools like Glassdoor and LinkedIn show promise for optimizing the candidate search, algorithms used to match employers with job seekers can sometimes go awry.

Kyle Hilton At happy hour, millennials may be more likely to kick back with a local or craft brew than a mass-market option. That fondness for smaller businesses with a perceived higher level of quality could translate well for local dealers.

At Curtis Lumber, Carpenter has more than once encountered candidates who turned the tables during the initial interview process. “I’ve called to follow up on a resume from LinkedIn and the candidate immediately asks, ‘Who are you again?’ or ‘What does your company do?’ and continues to interview us with high expectations of what it’s going to take to fulfill their career expectations,” Carpenter recounts. “And this is the job seeker.”

Bill Hofius is the former senior vice president for Atlanta-based Ply Marts and has been on the front lines of pro dealer sales management for the better part of four decades. As millennials have apprenticed into outside sales rep roles, he’s encountered not narcissism and self-interest, but an authentic desire to learn more, and—of course—advance.

“It’s not just that they are wicked smart. They’re the first generation that I’ve seen enter the industry because this is what they want to do,” Hofius says. “They’re exciting to work with, they have a vision and know what they can do, and are investing in themselves.”

At LP, Smith has seen a demonstrated affinity among millennials for not just a sense of purpose, but a purpose directed at improving society from the brands and companies they put to their loyalty test. She agrees with Patterson that younger employees and customers are searching for more than just product and price.

“The best way we’ve been able to engage via social media or email or as a corporate culture has been to communicate what is important to our brand, what is our vision, what is our driving force,” she says. “You need to display the human side and show the heart of a company.”

Articulating a purposeful culture in the boards-and-boots reality of LBM might not be as sexy as some of the high-tech industries coveting the millennial workforce, but the role pro dealers play in community creation and betterment can put them in the driver’s seat as employers who are making a difference.

“We do a lot of great things,” Patterson says. “We’re not a Google or an Alphabet and we’re not building flying cars, but we do provide the tools and services to help build homes and dreams and ranches and farms that create communities and make a difference.”

And culture, as it turns out, is just half the job. While the younger generation is tuned into social impact, they’re not interested in working with or for companies merely as a feel-good mercy mission. Millennials remain hyper-focused not just on competitive salary, but on specific, identified steps they can take to gain promotion and the pay rate that comes with it.

“Millennials’ top complaints about supervisors are that they have no vision and no clearly defined career path for growth,” Patterson says. “That’s something we’re looking to change internally in terms of management and communication styles to connect with the generation that is poised to dominate both our workforce and customer segments posthaste.”

3. They Build Offline Relationships with Online Engagement

Kyle Hilton Their inclination for online shopping, particularly through e-commerce giants, has given millennials heightened expectations for the web purchasing capabilities of all businesses.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, communication styles with all generations have become increasingly demarcated, and industries like LBM that are dependent on complex sales cycles for high-dollar orders are often faced with a double-edged sword of information overload.

While Internet-savvy customers come to the purchasing table with most of the facts (and an expected price) at their fingertips, their online experience with nationally-branded transactional platforms like can skew expectations.

“From a marketing perspective, a lot of people reasonably consider us to be a big company, but we’re not big enough to provide a consumer web experience, and builders are consumers,” says Carpenter. “So there is an increasing challenge to provide their levels of expected service with a marketing team that is large by pro dealer standards with only five people.”

While Curtis Lumber’s point of sale upgrade is envisioned to provide real-time inventory and order information to rival the big boxes, the technology migration has proven to be a major lift, making the ease of connecting with builders via social media all the more appealing to the company’s OSRs.

“I want to get the customer in an experience with our salesperson that they talk about long after the day ends, and reps engaged with social [media] have deeper and more meaningful relationships than anything we have ever had in the past,” Carpenter says.

Online engagement with millennial contractors also can extend beyond social media, particularly when it comes to satisfying their hunger for training and education opportunities. While no one is suggesting an end to the iconic contractor cookout, traditional half-day or lunch-hour product and installation seminars can be easily migrated to an online webinar format. As a live production, webinar platforms offer rich multimedia presentation and audience Q&A, and the registration data (think contractor names, titles, emails, length of engagement with programming) could yield even better leads and intel than the traditional brown-bagger ever did.

“No matter what, we are still dealing with a personal connection,” says Patterson. “Technology accelerates the curve of getting to know people, of reaching out and finding them, but it needs to be another tool to complement a face-to-face relationship that is the completion of that connection.”

4. They Aren’t So Different After All
With that said, millennial managers-to-be might want to chuck any ideas of an end-to-end, sight-unseen sales relationship with their contractor peers, even as other consumer and even B2B transactions go completely virtual. To ease the transfer of power, Patterson admits that boomers and Gen X-ers are going to have to yield to millennials, “and the millennials will have to come a little bit more our way.”

That’s okay, says Hofius, who thinks the millennial hunger for career pathing is as much about a desire to gain offline, analog customer service skills and access to an era where craftsmanship and service—and not tech bells and whistles—were the defining attributes of successful businesses.

“Getting them to understand their importance in the sales process and the supply chain is imperative, but they are willing to sell more than price, and that is a clear indication that they want to become an influencer of builders based on knowledge and service,” he says. “And that’s when you can start to really sell with confidence.”

Patterson agrees, and says it’s time to abandon the idea that the chasm between millennials and their older industry peers was dug from differences in technology.

“All of our execs and sales staff have iPhones and iPads and use cloud-based software and Doodle for polling and Dropbox for document storage,” he says, emphasizing that the clear and present opportunity is one of mentorship and the passing on of everything from institutional knowledge to industry lore.

“We all want to continue to have the lifeblood that keeps our companies relevant,” Patterson says. “The reality in that we’ll all be spending the next few years chasing a generation that thinks a little bit different, that learns things quickly but also gets bored quickly. If they get bored with us, it will partially be because we have not embraced the opportunity to show them what the next step is.”