Rhodes' journey26 May 2012
Geoff Rhodes FWISc talks to Keren Fallwell about his unerring enthusiasm for timber and the timber industry
When Geoff Rhodes’ father, an architect, spotted an advert in The Daily Telegraph for a Furniture Industry Training Board scheme, little did he know he’d be launching his son into an industry that would become a lifelong career and a passion.
Geoff’s application was successful and in 1969 his career in the timber industry started – with Denny, Mott & Dickson which traded largely in Russian and Scandinavian softwood, and had African and Far Eastern concessions. Eighteen months later the company merged with William Mallinson to form Mallinson Denny. Geoff’s training was “an old-fashioned three-year sandwich course”, working in veneer warehouses; the London docks; a plywood mill; as a shipping and tally clerk at various ports; and attending High Wycombe College of Technology.
Six years later Geoff joined North American company Seaboard International – a move that marked his entry into the panel products sector. Seaboard was supplying Canadian products in volume to the UK and expanding its sheet materials business.“I joined a team that was committed to growing what was then known as speciality products, anything that wasn’t a bulk commodity,” said Geoff.
Introduction to MDF
In 1976, still a relative junior in Seaboard, Geoff was given responsibility for finding markets for US company Medford Corporation’s new, unknown product – MDF. “This was at a time when the main interest in London was selling Canadian plywood and lumber,” said Geoff. “But I was immediately enthusiastic. Here was something really different, but I had no idea what the potential scope could be.”
The first order was one pack of 19mm 8x4ft for Phoenix Timber, and then one for Keizer Venesta, shipped on a 30,000-ton Seaboard bulk carrier from Medford via Vancouver to Tilbury.
Today European installed capacity for MDF is 15 million m³ and it’s a development that Geoff looks back on with a slight sense of awe and a tremendous feeling of pride.
In 1983 Medford opened its 150,000m³ capacity Medite MDF mill in Clonmel, Ireland, and three years later when Medite decided it was time to establish its own European sales and marketing team, Geoff made the move too.
“I took a deep breath because it was leaving a big, well-established player to join something that was getting established. It was exciting but becoming employee no. 0001 was daunting.”
Geoff recognised the “scale of the challenges” and the responsibility of “doing things right”. “I’d worked for well-respected companies who wanted to do things the right way and that’s played an important part in the way I’ve worked over the past 40 years,” he said.
Sense of community
With this in mind, as marketing and sales director Geoff established the new office in his home town of Southend-on-Sea. “It gave me a buzz that we were going to create employment in my home town (my grandfather was mayor of Southend from 1933-1934) and it’s something I’m very pleased to have done. For 22 years we had a very successful, active business for Medite, Willametteand Weyerhaeuserand it was only as a consequence of the sale to Coillte that we moved the office to Dartford in 2008.”
Geoff also felt a responsibility to live up to Medite’s expectations. “Their vision and enthusiasm to build a business in Europe rubbed off on me. They were typical west coast Americans – laid back but incredibly passionate about what they were doing, and skilful with it.”
By 1991, with the MDF market well established, Geoff may have thought those pioneering days were over – and then Medite announced it was putting in a second line at Clonmel and doubling capacity to 300,000m³. Rather than being daunted, Geoff embraced the move with typical enthusiasm. “It was great fun and exciting working with a company that had the vision, the commitment and the wherewithal to tell the market ‘We’re doubling capacity’.”
Geoff has also always had a keen sense of being part of a wider timber industry and the responsibility that entails. In the early years of MDF, Seaboard was a member of the fibreboard association, FIDOR. Geoff joined the organisation’s management board in the late 1980s and was president from 1990-92. Without pausing for breath, he was president of the European MDF Manufacturers Association from 1992-96. He then chaired the Timber Trade Federation’s (TTF) international division and was president of The Federation from 2002-2004.
Career high point
His goal of attending all the regional dinners and committee meetings made it a busy period, but his presidency was a high point of his career and it reinforced his appreciation of the industry’s camaraderie and passion for business.
During Geoff’s term, the TTF implemented an earlier review panel’s recommendations, which included introduction of the Code of Conduct, and, ever mindful of his own path into the timber industry, he established the education, training and career development committee. Training is still an interest for Geoff and he would willingly recommend a career in the timber trade.
“There are some fantastic jobs and if ever there was a relevance for young people it’s now in a world talking about sustainable and renewable materials, CO2 emissions, or at school they might be learning about the carbon economy, accountancy or marketing. We’re as relevant as any industry, we just need to believe it.”
This brings in another area of concern – industry promotion. Geoff’s views on how to achieve promotion on the necessary scale haven’t wavered: he still advocates an industry levy. “It would be a fair and reasonable way to sustainably fund an ongoing campaign and the trade should still be trying to make it happen.”
Another proud achievement is the Medite 2016 Forum which Geoff founded in 2006 to mark Medite MDF’s 30 years in Europe and to look forward to the next 10. “There are now more than 80 people who either have written in the 2016 Forum compendiums, spoken at its conferences or written in TTJ’s Wood Futures column. It represents the diversity of topics and visionary ideas relating to the timber trade.”
In June last year Geoff left Coillte Panel Products and set up Geoff Rhodes Associates, a forest products consultancy. This latest chapter has also brought a new industry role as chair of Edinburgh Napier University’s advisory board for the Forest Products Research Institute (FPRI).
Over the past 40 years Geoff always tried to keep the job Monday to Friday to ensure he had important quality family time with his wife Linda and daughters Amy and Emily, graduates of the Universities of Newcastle and Bath respectively, and to pursue his many interests which include sport, photography and theatre.
He is now enjoying the “different timetable” driven by his own interests which allows him to chair the FPRI and, as an active member of the London Timber Trade Golfing Society, a little more time to practise.
He also plans to refurbish the family’s beach hut at Thorpe Bay, “using all the techniques learned in 40 years in the timber industry”, and continue his involvement in the Southend community. This includes the local authority’s Southend Business and Tourism Partnership which counts among its successes the extension of the Thames Gateway regeneration project to the Thames estuary; Southend’s becoming an education hub, including a University of Essex campus; and the redevelopment of the airport, now London Southend, with easyJet flights to Europe and fast rail connections to London.
And now Geoff is celebrating the £855,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant awarded recently for a resource centre for Belfairs Woods. He started the process several years ago with funds from Medite’s then owner, Weyerhaeuser, and the recent funding success for Southend Borough Council and the Essex Wildlife Trust means construction could start in July. However, the final £50,000 is needed and Geoff has appealed to the timber trade for help – www.justgiving.com/ essex-wildlife-trust. He has been involved in the Forest Education Initiative since it was founded in 1992, and this project encapsulates its aims, as well as many of his passions – timber, education and industry promotion.
“My pleasure, my interest in the timber industry – that great potential is still there for any young person who is interested in international trade, likes wood as a material, has perhaps made a model, or been for a walk in the woods and liked what they saw. My long journey is testament to those opportunities.”