2020 marked the 20th anniversary of Tom Compton becoming a co-owner of English Woodlands Timber Ltd.
Tom’s journey began cooking sausages over a campfire at his grandparents’ small patch of Sussex woodland in the late 1970s. Those happy days led to a career in forestry and landscaping that has seen huge changes in the industry, and the birth of new markets for forestry products.
“Today, there is a whole new generation of makers, artisans and architects who need sustainably sourced timber in custom sizes – and they want to buy in new, seamless, frictionless ways. It’s a renaissance for timber, it’s transforming our industry. And I love it.”
Tom’s grandmother was an architect – a pioneering achievement for a young woman in teh 1930’s – and her love of woodland and understanding of timber undoubtedly influenced Tom’s desire to work with wood. In 1986, Tom attended Bangor University – one of the only three universities offering forestry degrees at the time – and since then he has followed his dream of working in forestry.
“After the great storm of 1987 I went down to my grandparent’s wood with a couple of mates from uni and our chainsaws to clear the fallen oak. The forester Gordon Long owned a small sawmill where we converted the wood into timber. I thought that was just brilliant. Opening-up the growth rings of something that’s 150 years old, the smell, turning it into timber? There’s something very satisfying about that. ”
After graduating from Bangor, Tom attended the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester to study a business diploma. One of his tutors in food supply was Peel Holroyd, who had worked with M&S as they developed their poultry supply lines. Whilst a long way from trees and timber…
“Peel helped me look at the forestry business in an objective, strategic sense. While many of my classmates went on to work as civil servants for the forestry commission, and others moved into agriculture, I knew my future was going to be in commercial forestry.”
So, armed only with the 1991 Handbook of Forestry directory, Tom began sending off his CV to potential employers including English Woodlands, a forestry company that had recently lost they forestrey managers and were struggling.
“English Woodlands took a punt on me, a new graduate, because experienced business people with specialist knowledge of forestry are few and far between. I guess I was also cheap! When I got there I discovered one of their foresters was a man called Bob Pellett, who advised my grandparents to buy the wood I grew up in back in 1978. Forestry is a small world. ”
Over the next 8 years Tom helped English Woodlands survive as forestry tax breaks ended and the decline of the UK furniture industry hit UK forestry, by helping them expand into landscape management. Which, in a roundabout way – quite literally after landscaping a few on the A27 – led him to Cocking Mill.
“One day in 1996, I was driving into London to oversee the landscaping of the A13 improvement. We had a new chairman and investors that wanted to move away from forestry. By the time I reached Dagenham I decided it wasn’t where I wanted my career to go.”
That decision led Tom to take a stake in a sawmill business that had originally been a subsidiary of English Woodlands, managed by George Marchant and Hugh Gent. After a management buyout the sawmill had become one English Woodland’s customers, buying wood in the round from Tom. George Marchant – also a graduate of Bangor’s forestry course – wanted to retire and Tom made an excellent successor. That sawmill in Cocking was English Woodlands Timber.
Tom soon realised that although he knew the forestry business inside-out, producing products for joiners, framers and furniture makers was a very different challenge. Those markets were fast changing through globalisation, and UK forestry couldn’t keep up with demand for timber. Tom decided the only way to thrive in the era of global e-commerce and just-in-time logistics was expanding the traditional sawmill business, using English Woodlands Timber’s considerable timber product and wood expertise to source and trade the very best quality timber from the US and EU. This also meant focusing on FSE, PEFC and EUTR certified wood, and also Grown in Britain, the first certification scheme for UK grown timber.
“The Dept. of the Environment’s new HQ in Cambridge was attracting a lot of negative attention from Greenpeace for using imported African iroko. We offered to help and found ourselves very quickly in Whitehall with the developer, agreeing to supply the first sustainably grown, EU sourced, certified oak for a government project. We’re very proud of that.”
Tom’s vision for English Woodlands Timber is simple: to become partners with all their clients, helping them source the very finest sustainable timber products for their projects. That means digitally transforming their customer channels to enable seamless end-to-end customer experiences, and never losing sight of their sustainable, low-carbon company culture and commitment to biodiverse habitats and forestry.
“Woods and trees connect us across generations. My grandparents’ wood is still in the family. My children grew up making memories there, under some of the same trees that were there when my grandparents took me. And when we visit, we always cook sausages too. Maybe that’s why when I go there I’m suddenly 10 years old again. Woodland can do that.”
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