Miles ahead24 January 2009
After 30 years in the trade, Tony Miles remains excited about the future for timber. Mike Jeffree spoke to the well-known managing director of International Timber
• Tony Miles joined the timber trade at the age of 17.
• Becoming part of the St Gobain group was a positive step for International.
• He became managing director of International Timber in 2007.
• He believes the industry is still too fragmented.
• He relaxes by playing the guitar and walking his three dogs.
In November 1979, a 17-year-old Liverpool lad started work for Gliksten Hardwood, part of the International Timber Group. One attraction of the job was the word ‘International’ and the exciting prospect of working in a global industry, another that he might be able to get cheap timber for his dad, a keen carpenter! The latter was slightly concerned that his son was starting his career the day before Bonfire Night, which local kids might celebrate by burning Gliksten to the ground. But fortunately that didn’t happen and the rest is history.
Three decades on that Liverpool lad, Tony Miles, is managing director of International Timber and one of the UK trade’s best-known figures. And, while not uncritical of his industry – in fact, he has a reputation for telling it like it is – the intervening years have clearly not dimmed the interest and excitement that drew him to it in the first place.
“It’s been a great business to be in and I haven’t quenched my thirst yet,” he said. “At 46, I’m still relatively young and I’ve still got goals in timber.”
The first goals Gliksten set were many and varied.
“They wanted people with all-round timber knowledge and we had two years training across the business,” said Tony. “I was then directed into kiln operation and, from there, kiln-dried sales.”
To further broaden his experience, Tony joined the sales team at International group member, John Ashworth. From the outset, hardwoods and clear softwoods were where he felt most at home, but he was also immersed early on in sheet materials. In fact, he went on to become panels manager at John Ashworth.
After two years in this role, Tony moved to Edward Hughes, part of the Mallinson Denny group, where he became north-east sales manager. But ultimately he was lured back to International.
Through the 90s the latter evolved into the business it is today, with six sites and a single brand identity covering hardwoods, clear and European softwoods, decking, treated and machined products. And during that time Tony rose through the ranks from product director to sales, commercial and finally, in 2007, managing director.
Over his career, the trade itself has also evolved, in some respects radically.
“The structure of the supply market has changed and the erosion of trade demarcation lines has made business more competitive,” said Tony. “But there are still opportunities for all of us, if we’re sensible about it.”
Another key development has been the emergence of environmental performance as a vital trade issue.
“I remember kilning tropical species that many people now won’t touch because of environmental concerns,” said Tony. “And the flipside has been the growing usage of temperate hardwoods, from the US in the early years and latterly from Europe.”
Some companies tried to resist the green tide, but not International. “We engaged with the environmental NGOs early on and that’s what we’ve continued to do,” said Tony. “And now, if we go about it the right way and develop a real understanding of certification and the legality of sources of supply, environmental issues can work to our advantage.”
Becoming part of global building products giant Saint-Gobain in 1999 was another step change for International Timber.
“That’s been very positive,” said Tony. “In an organisation this size there’s tremendous shared knowledge, and the opportunity to network with so many individuals and nationalities definitely develops your personal skills.”
With the economy sinking into the third recession of his career, Tony has no illusions about trade prospects for 2009. “It’s going to be tough and there are going to be casualties,” he said. But he also believes that, from 2010, timber’s environmental credentials, the UK’s need for millions of sustainable new homes, and major infrastructure projects, notably the Olympics, will create “tremendous opportunities”.
“We’ve got to be lean and mean and realign our businesses to exploit the opportunities but, if we do, the future is there for us.”
As a former president of the North West Timber Trade Association, Tony is also an advocate of the industry working together to develop its markets.
“We are still too fragmented,“ he said. “We need to speak with a single voice and pull together even more to promote timber and take on competing materials.”
Training is another area where he sees the need for concerted action: “We’ve set up a Timber Academy to train people across the Saint-Gobain UK group, but we need an industry-wide strategy to develop skills. And as part of this we should be more open to external influences and draw in expertise from other sectors.”
Outside work, Tony’s interests include collecting memorabilia, notably connected to Muhammad Ali, and he relaxes by playing the guitar and, with his wife of 23 years, taking their three Labradors on long walks.
The Miles’s also have two children, both now at university. Asked if he’d advise them to follow his example of 30 years ago and join the timber trade, Tony answered unequivocally.
“If it’s the right job, I’d say grab the opportunity. I’m very optimistic about this industry and, if it gives them a tenth of the opportunity and enjoyment I’ve had, they’ll have a great career.”