Brad Wanzenberg always thought he would be a banker. Instead, after receiving his master's degree in international economics from American University in Washington, he went to work at Deerfield Builders Supply (DBS), the business his grandfather, Edward P. Dietrich, founded in 1947. It wasn't what he had planned. While lumber was in the family on his mother's side, his father was a banker, and Wanzenberg always intended to follow in those footsteps.

"I'd hardly say I'm someone who had sawdust running through his veins at an early age," says Wanzenberg, 38, now executive vice president at DBS and in line to succeed Edward H. Dietrich, DBS' current president. But then "a lot of different things came together at the right time," he says. "I was getting a master's degree in international economics, we had a vacancy in our export division, and I was getting married. I decided that this would be a good opportunity to see if I could make a difference." Now, in addition to overseeing the $30 million operation's main yard in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Wanzenberg directs weekly exports to the Caribbean.

While Wanzenberg's career path to the lumber industry has been anything but predestined–or direct–his is also not that unusual today. With baby boomer owners nearing retirement age, the torch is now being passed to a new generation of lumber executives.

Unlike their parents, who may have been groomed from early on to take over the family business, this new generation of under-40 pros is just as likely to have left the family fold for a period before making the decision to return. In the meantime, they worked in other industries and attended college or graduate school. Even those new-generation pros who entered the business through a traditional, linear path grew up during the rise of the personal computer, so they're armed with an intuitive acceptance of technology that their parents may not have had.

That's the case with Bryan Hutchison, 27, now president of three-unit Hutchison Lumber in Pine, Colo. Though as a youth he dusted the shelves of his father's hardware store, Hutchison approaches the profession having used his first computer at age 7 and with a degree in business administration. That background has made him much more systems- and process-oriented than his father, Robert. "In his day, I think much of the business was trial by fire," Hutchison says. "I'm much more methodical than that."

Sometimes, the future leaders of these companies aren't family members at all. Instead, they're trained, sophisticated business executives who have been brought in to run the larger, more complex companies that have evolved as the industry matured. Spurred by the emergence of the big boxes, industry consolidation, ballooning SKU counts, and an emphasis on service and installed sales, they're running their companies with an eye on efficiency gains and reduced costs.

That's the mission of Greg Failla, vice president at Contractor Express in Oceanside, N.Y. He worked at the single-yard firm as a teenager before embracing a career at insurer Empire BlueCross BlueShield in New York City, where he had 300 employees working under him. Contractor Express president Bob Lucas, one of three brothers involved in the business, lured him back to help lead the dealer into the future. "As I was evolving as a young executive in a totally different industry, the company here was evolving, too, and growing," Failla says. "They needed someone with real-world management experience who they could pass the torch to."

As these and other up-and-coming execs begin to or prepare to lead the industry, they're chiseling out a new image for the lumber pro, one that's steeped in higher education and an appreciation for technology. At the same time, they still maintain a high degree of reverence for the boards-and-boots heritage of an industry rooted in multigenerational ownership and tradition. Sure, this new class embraces spreadsheets and business dashboards, but it's also cognizant of the fact that as much as the business has changed, some aspects never will: maintaining solid relationships with customers, vendors, and employees; providing quality service and products; and being constantly vigilant in the face of ever-increasing competition.

–Joe Bousquin is a contributing editor for ProSales.