We're saving you close to 10,000 miles of driving with this month's look at life in lumberyards perched on the four corners of the continental United States. Marathon Key, Madawaska, Point Roberts, and National City certainly rank among the most colorful places in America to find fellow lumbermen at work. But as you enjoy your armchair travels, remember also that you share something in common with these yards on the edge. No, it's not the goods you sell. It's your local expertise.

Craig Webb, Editor I have visited 27 states since becoming editor of ProSales 15 months ago, and at no time in those travels have I found two dealers with the exact same products, services, or business operations. That's one reason, in fact, why we started a new feature this month, "My Yardsticks," in which we'll reveal how top dealers measure their companies' performance. Dealerships may differ in management style and market niche, but at virtually every successful operation I found people with deep knowledge of the local market. They know how houses get built in their areas, who builds them, what products work best, and what it takes to meet community needs.

Basing success on intense local expertise would seem to run counter to the notion that you can't profit unless you plaster the country with outlets that deliver the same experience, regardless of where you are, be it a hotel bed or a Happy Meal. Even big builders talk regularly about purchasing their materials on a national basis, as if home buyers in Ohio have the same tastes as those in Oregon. But as John Caulfield's story and chart this month show (see page 46), most builders still operate in a pretty decentralized manner.

For further proof, look at the biggest LBM operations, the ones that work hardest to serve the biggest builders and, thus, have the greatest reason to think nationally rather than locally. When I visited Pro-Build Holding's headquarters recently, I found it takes up just one floor of a modest-sized office building in the Denver Technology Center and employs far less than 1% of Pro-Build's total workforce. It's not the goal of headquarters to dictate to its units, many of which have yet to even add Pro-Build to their names. Rather, it seeks to provide back-office services such as IT support in those areas where size or a national network can yield a competitive advantage.

Pro-Build executives also foster on a national level something many of you do as well: knowledge through sharing. Almost invariably, the most successful, best-managed, most innovative LBM operations I've seen are led by people who join roundtables, attend LBM association meetings, and take part in ProSales surveys. They seek out the best and latest ideas, write down the ones they think will work, and then adapt those concepts to their local environments.

I've done a lot of thinking about what the LBM industry's mission is. I'm still wrestling with the words, but my view boils down to this: lumber dealers provide the vital local link that builds the American dream. Without you, homes wouldn't be built as well, or with as diverse a supply of materials, or at as good a price, as your fellow countrymen enjoy today.

Choose your cliché: you're the local catalyst, you're the "last mile," you're the final link in the supply chain. Whatever it is, the American housing industry wouldn't be the same without you, because you're the person who understands local construction needs and makes certain they are met. Even if you're located at the ends of the continent, you're still at the very center of what puts roofs over the heads of Americans.