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  • An interview with Neil Donaldson

An interview with Neil Donaldson

Since first establishing a small operation in Fife more than 150 years ago, James Donaldson & Sons Ltd has become one of the UK’s leading independent processors, manufacturers and distributors of timber and timber engineered products.

In an exclusive interview with Wood for Good, Neil Donaldson, executive chairman and great-great-grandson of James Donaldson, discusses the company’s growth and how the business is evolving to support the needs of a changing timber industry.

For Neil Donaldson, being born into the James Donaldson & Sons Ltd dynasty meant timber has always been in his veins.

First dipping his toes in the family business at 15-years-old, Neil went on to attend Heriot-Watt University. After graduating with an MSc in Business Studies, he returned to the company, first working in the yard and mill, and then later as a foreman before progressing to management.

“It was a conscious decision by myself, and one supported by my father, to work across every aspect of the business,” Neil explained. “I’m very much of the belief that you should never ask someone to do a job you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself, and this helped me to gain both a good grounding in day-to-day operations and get to know the workforce’s capabilities.” 

Growing the business

The company that Neil joined in the 1970s was very different to the business it is today. 

Founded in 1860, James Donaldson & Sons began life as a small timber merchant in Tayport, Fife, importing a variety of timber from Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltics, and shortly afterwards expanded by opening a small sawmill in Leven, also in Fife. The original Leven operation gradually grew, and in 1955 it was moved down the road to Elm Park, an 11 acre site that provided additional floor space and stacking room. 

Although the company made numerous investments in technology in its first 100 years, the business model remained very much the same until Neil took over as MD in 1985. 

One of Neil’s first acts was to consolidate both sites to Elm Park to streamline management processes and deliver additional operational efficiencies.

It was also at this time that Neil began to look beyond James Donaldson & Sons’ established markets. The Group had already begun producing roof trusses in 1979, and Neil identified engineered timber products as a major growth market. 

Donaldson Timber Engineering (DTE) was born in 1985, with a specific remit of designing and manufacturing structural timber roof and flooring systems, including roof trusses, I-joists, posi-joists, laminated veneer lumber, chipboard and roof and floor cassettes. 

From the early 1990s onwards, Neil looked to extend DTE’s operations south of the border. First came a new unit at Cramlington in Northumberland in 1992, followed three years later by Ilkeston, Derbyshire. In the next few years, DTE acquired sites at Oxford, Ashford in Kent, and finally Andover on the south coast, giving it a national reach and becoming one of the leading timber roof truss and I-beam distributors in the UK. 

The next step

At the end of the 1990s, and with DTE a successful business in its own right, Neil turned his attentions to strengthening the Group’s import, manufacturing and distribution offering.

He began by reviving the mill and yard, looking to do for the distribution arm what had been done for DTE before it. This led to the launch of James Donaldson Timber (JDT).

As with DTE before it, JDT began life in Leven. The division then bought Parker Kislingbury at Brill, near Oxfordshire (now trading as JDT), and later spread to Chorley, Lancashire, with the acquisition of Palgrave Brown. Palgrave Brown brought with it the capacity to manufacture MDF mouldings, and this site has recently benefitted from a 1.5m investment in new manufacturing equipment, making it one of the most modern in Europe.

“All locations have been strategically selected,” added Neil. “Staff can travel to and from a site in just one day, and it means we now have UK-wide coverage. It’s helped to improve our customer service too, allowing us to give buyers what they want, when they want it.”

The final string to the Group’s bow was the acquisition of MGM Timber, a Perth-based timber merchant, in 2002.

Since the acquisition, the Group has grown MGM with three new branches (now totally 13), to sell a range of softwood, hardwood, finishings and structural sections and other related products. It is now one of the largest independent timber merchants in the country and serves other companies as well as Donaldson’s.

Lessons in business

Today, James Donaldson & Sons is in its sixth generation, with both of Neil’s sons now playing an active role in the business. It is one of the largest family-owned timber companies headquartered in Scotland and currently employs 680 people.

“Our success is founded on a simple premise; good staff, good management and good products. We’re proud to employ some of the best in the business, and we’re also wise enough to recognise that we don’t know it all. When you stop learning, you stand still, and risk your competitors overtaking you.

“I realised that to take the company to the next level, we needed to apply world-class business intelligence, and took the decision to attend Harvard Business School. The training I received here helped to raise my aspirations and decision-making abilities, which allowed me to sustainably grow the company.

“It’s this experience that also gave me the confidence that I was making the right decision when stepping down as MD.”

Neil gave up his position as MD in 2011 and appointed Scott Cairns in his place – the first non-family member ever to lead the company.

“Scott has been with us for more than 15 years and throughout that time has been integral in modernising our offering. He has proved himself to be a well-equipped, insightful business leader and, being a younger man than myself, has the vivacity and ambition to grow the Group even further.”

Although no longer directly responsible for day-to-day operations, Neil continues to play a decisive role in the company’s development as executive chair.

Trade affairs

As previous chairman of both TRADA and the TTF, and still sitting on the governing board of the latter, Neil is concerned with the advancement of the timber industry and is a fervent supporter of sustainability campaign, Wood for Good.

“The challenge we have as an industry is convincing customers of the merits of sustainably-sourced timber when many still base their final purchasing decision on cost,” Neil said. “Where Wood for Good has been effective is in communicating a rational, unified message – that timber can be a sustainable, affordable and aesthetically-pleasing solution for the built environment.

“Already we’re experiencing a sea change in timber production and use. In days gone by, UK timber was considered a low grade product suitable only for pallets and fencing. The timber we’re now producing is leagues away from this, being high quality, sustainable and competitively priced. It’s reflected in our own operations too – as little as seven years ago only five per cent of the Group’s timber was sourced in UK; now this figure is around 30 per cent and growing.

“At James Donaldson & Sons, we’re showing that it is possible to operate ethically and be successful, and we’ll continue to augment our offering to remain a leader in the field.”

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