It’s no joke to say our Ian can smell a good business opportunity, in fact, it was the smell of freshly sawn pine that sparked his love of the timber industry.
Ian’s a successful entrepreneur who loves technology and travel, and when you combine that kind of thinking with sustainable natural products like timber, you get English Woodlands Timber.
After qualifying as a chartered accountant with Coopers and Lybrand (yes, as in Pricewaterhouse Coopers or PWC) and a few different roles from running a motorcycle dealership in London and a label printing firm in his native South Africa, Ian was asked to take on the role of Managing Director at a kitchen door manufacturer.
“I knew wood was my vocation when I smelled that sawmill. I loved it. We worked with pine, which made it a very sustainable business because we planted more than we cut. There’s something special about the timber industry. I couldn’t work in metals or an oil plant. They just don’t smell right.”
In 1999, Ian’s entrepreneurial spirit grew restless and he left the timber company and acquired a packaging company, then expanded into toiletries and pharmaceuticals. This eventually led him to expand into the UK, taking over the manufacturing facilities of the struggling high street brand, the Body Shop.
“I loved their beauty without cruelty ethos and their commitment to Fairtrade and organic ingredients. It was an interesting opportunity to expand and a chance to keep those factories rolling. And it brought me back to the UK, which I loved too.”
After selling his company in 2006, Ian became an angel investor and actively involved in the leadership of a number of successful tech companies, and a few years later, a chance conversation with another parent – Tom Compton – at his daughter’s school led him to visit the English Woodlands Timber & Forestry sawmill & woodyard at Cocking.
“My investment strategy is always the same, I invest and then get involved with building the business. When I saw the mill and smelled the timber, well, naturally I fell in love with the place.”
Ian’s vision for English Woodlands Timber was digital transformation of the business in a number of ways. Firstly he addressed the biggest issue – the fact that timber was sold by the cubic metre.
“The obvious problem was a lack of product differentiation. So we began by categorising different species, thicknesses, widths, lengths and so on, Board by Board, categorising them for different applications and customers because it’s not a one-size-fits all, and then we made the entire stock searchable online. The challenge was big, but the opportunity was bigger.”
Ian’s digital transformation of the mill’s stock achieved two huge wins for EWT. Firstly it opened up their produce to a much wider market making it possible to sell stock beyond their regular local customers to the whole UK, and beyond with international sales. Secondly, it opened up new markets for timber. The traditional customer base grew to include furniture makers, builders, joiners, carpenters, as well as architects and craftspeople.
Ian sees it as an ongoing project. He’s used his experience in other industries, and his management consultant talents to transform EWT into a very effective digital offering. He has a passion for improving the operational side of the business with LEAN manufacturing for workflow efficiencies, improved workplace safety, energy usage and warehouse operations. He’s also invested in aligning the business processes with digital fulfillment.
“What do we mean by alignment? Outstanding customer experiences and more effective e-commerce. Advanced search options to categorise the products in any way the customer needs it. Lots of digital photos of every item of stock. Traceability information. Certification. Live video streams for clients to inspect the stock remotely. Sometimes customers drive all day to collect the right piece of wood, so we use digital to make sure they know precisely what to expect and precisely why it’s worth making the drive to EWT.”
You might think Ian lives and breathes the business, but he’s not all work work work. By coincidence, both he and EWT & F partner Tom Compton are very keen Real Tennis players (if you’re not familiar with it, have a look at this) and he and Tom are locked in weekly ‘fiercely competitive matches’. Weekends playing tennis, weekdays bringing the advanced workflow technology of a silicon valley player into the woods of West Sussex. That’s Ian.
Lucky for us he didn’t prefer the smell of petrochemicals, back in Durban…