After watching the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," I'd bet a lot of Americans would call the D-Day invasion a bloodbath. Historians estimate 2,500 Allied soldiers died, and another 7,500 were injured or lost in action while storming the Normandy beaches. But to the allied commanders, those were good numbers. They had anticipated far more carnage, and were willing to accept those enormous losses if it helped them defeat Hitler.

Craig Webb These days, most LBM executives strike me as being more like Tom Hanks than George Patton. During peaceful, upbeat times, that's a good thing. Indeed, this month's annual recognition of a Public Service Leader is one way we honor dealers everywhere for how deeply they care about their fellow citizens. But these aren't happy times, and for dealers who are soft-hearted pushovers, they're positively dangerous.

During my visits to lumberyards across the country, I've been taken by how many execs were left awestruck by the suddenness and ferocity of this market's crash–"like switching off a light," more than one dealer has described it. Despite that experience, most LBM operations' responses have been gradual and typically ad hoc. It's as if dealers were focused on trimming the branches of a tree while a hurricane was ripping the tree out from the roots.

Such a dichotomy isn't surprising. Lumberyard executives universally say theirs is a relationship business, often interlaced with family ties or decades of shared experiences. They put so much energy into their people and place that the idea of cutting anything feels like an amputation. Meanwhile, requests to give to the Little League, community chest, and other causes are going up as the economy goes down.

The result? Fixating on little things is keeping dealers from focusing on the overall mission. That, in turn, puts the entire operation in danger of collapse.

In some cases, I think the problem is that people concentrate on the small problems because they don't want to contemplate the consequences of addressing the big ones. Most dealerships can't afford to operate under their infrastructures with revenues that are far less than what they used to be, yet you can find examples of that going on nationwide.

As one well-bruised dealer exec told me, you have to gear your operations to the business you've got, not the business you'd like to have. If that means your company has to succeed on just half its former revenues, so be it. Plan accordingly, and accept the fact that getting your business back to a profitable size might mean saying goodbye to some veteran workers or dropping long-cherished business lines. If they help you reach your prime objective, they're acceptable losses.

There are other places that I'm guessing are in even more dire straits. They can't focus on the key objective because they don't know what that overarching objective is. Is it to help build good homes or to keep the kids fed and clothed? Is it to save the Earth or to build equity for retirement? Simply put, what should your dealership accomplish? Cynics joke about the silliness of most companies' mission statements, but when times are tough, it's the organizations with a clear objective that are best able to sail past the shoals.

My wife says that when she was a little girl, she asked her father to imagine a storm-tossed boat in which his wife and both of his daughters went overboard. Which one would he rescue? Without hesitating, her father replied, "Your mother. I love you and your sister, but we only had you. I chose her."

One part of my wife would rather have had her daddy say she was the person he'd rescue first, but she understood and appreciated her father's answer. He had spent three years of his young life fighting in World War II's African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns. He had seen fellow soldiers die in battle, and had to kill at least one himself. He hated much of what he had to do, but he also knew what mattered most. He understood the mission.

Craig Webb, Editor
[email protected]