Winners of the TTJ Small Timber Business of the Year Award have to stand out from the crowd.

In an era when chains and multiples increasingly dominate the UK trade, single-site companies (which winners of the Award must be) must differentiate themselves. They have to offer something unique, or go above and beyond in terms of product or service.

You could not find a company that satisfies those criteria better than this year’s TTJ Small Business of the Year, C Blumsom. Me-too the Barking-based importer, sawmiller and merchant definitely is not. What principally sets Blumsom apart is where it is and what it does there.

"Of course there are London timber businesses undertaking further processing, but we believe we’re the last full-service sawmill going from log, to finished moulding and component," said chairman Robert Blumsom. "Others closed, or cashed in on property prices and relocated and now, with industrial land here at £1m an acre, no-one’s going to start one. But, while it isn’t the prettiest spot, we decided to dig in our heels and make the most of the location, which is perfect for reaching anywhere in London fast and has good motorway access, so we can service customers further afield."

How Blumsom has capitalised on its capital location has been to evolve with the city. Like London itself, while retaining the best of its past, it hasn’t hesitated to abandon the old for the new when it’s time to move on.

Blumsom was launched as a chair maker in 1896 by the current chairman’s great-grandfather Charles, and it’s clearly proud of its industrial heritage. A steam engine parked at the entrance underlines that, as well as being an eye-catcher for potential passing trade.

The original furniture business subsequently started importing and this eventually became the core activity, leading to Blumsom relocating to wharf-side sites, first at Bow Bridge, then Maple Wharf, Barking in the 1930s. It finally settled on its current 2.5-acre Barking Creek premises (while retaining the Maple Wharf name in its address) in the 1950s.

"By then we were among the UK’s leading hardwood importers," said Mr Blumsom, "and, besides London, we were also serving the Home Counties and eastern and southeast England, as we do today."

Another major step was into large-scale kilning in the 1970s. But the development which set the seal on Blumsom’s evolution since, and enabled it to really make the most of the wave of construction and infrastructure work that has transformed London in recent decades, was the expansion of milling in the 1980s, after Mr Blumsom became managing director.

While closing its wharf operation, the company has remained a front line hardwood importer. It buys Asian, African and South American tropical species from landed stock, with the range including meranti and wenge and zebrawood. But North American and European species, from white oak to ash, tulipwood and black walnut, are still obtained from source, mostly prime grade.

"Importing direct still gives us that edge in terms of quality control and obtaining the precise specifications we need," said Mr Blumsom.

Long-Term relationships
"We’ve also established long-term supplier relationships," said purchasing director Tim Gunning. "That gives customers added assurance we can deliver, and confidence in the timber’s provenance and environmental credentials – especially today its compliance with EU Timber Regulation requirements." Unlike in the past, however, only a small proportion of Blumsom’s imports are now sold as simple sawn timber.

"Today we’re further processing around 80%, and probably wouldn’t be here otherwise, as few hardwood businesses today survive purely on sawn," said managing director Mark Price. "The mill has not only allowed us to add value, but expand our customer base and meet the changing needs of the London market."

Blumsom’s original plant eventually had eight moulders. But then, eight years ago, in perhaps the most dramatic example of the company’s capacity for reinvention so far, it "tore up the script and started again".

"The old equipment didn’t give us the versatility we needed to serve an increasingly diverse market, demanding ever faster turnaround and shorter runs," said Mr Blumsom.

New mill
The company’s radical solution was an all-new milling facility, comprising wallto- wall Weinig technology. Today, the eight old moulders are replaced by two Weinig Powermat 1000 lines, supported by a range of new machinery, including two Raimann Multi-rips, a FlexiRip and an OptiCut 500 optimising saw.

"In total we’ve spent about £1m," said Mr Blumsom. "The result is a much faster, more responsive, dynamic facility, producing a wider range of better quality, more consistent products, from window components to decking, cladding and flooring. Working with Weinig, we’ve also developed special expertise in calibrated-to-size thin sawing, down to 1mm, enabling us to grow door lipping sales in particular."

The greater efficiency of its new equipment has also enabled Blumsom to become leaner, trimming its workforce over time from 70 to 42.

Another strategic move was to end largescale drying and buy only KD, although the company still operates a 400ft3 service kiln.

"This undertakes third-party drying, but primarily it’s for fine-tuning moisture content of our stock," said Mr Price.

Blumsom also now makes more of its by-products. The bulk is sold, but in the winter they fuel a woodwaste boiler, which heats the mill. And, as part of its overhaul, the company additionally invested in Epicor BisTrack stock control and management software. This is the preserve of company secretary Elizabeth, Mr Blumsom’s Belgian wife, whose multilingual skills are useful in negotiations with European suppliers.

The delivery fleet has been revamped too.

"While we serve a wider area, London is our home patch and we’ve equipped accordingly," said Mr Blumsom. "We have four lorries, one with a Hiab, then two smaller trucks to navigate the narrower roads and offer same day delivery."

"It’s not a huge fleet, but we manage logistics tightly," said Mr Price. "Vehicles leave at 6am and can do three runs daily."

With the new mill behind it, Blumsom’s customer base now stretches from window and furniture manufacturers, to merchants, the DIY sector, jobbing builders and major construction and interiors customers. Some are on long-term supply contracts, but most order increasingly on a just-in-time basis, hence stock levels of around £1m.

The company is now seeing an increasing amount of business coming from its revamped website, but word of mouth also remains key, particularly at the top end of the market.

"We’ve supplied some prestigious developments through recommendation, including London’s impressive Three Quays development, for which we provided over 15,000m of machined FSC decking and 100 machined ex-57mm super prime walnut vanity tops in full-piece widths up to 400mm," said Mr Blumsom. "We’ve also supplied the legacy redevelopment of the London Olympics site."

The variety of customers has grown even further with Blumsom’s expansion into softwoods and sheet materials, a move overseen by Mr Blumsom’s 27-year-old son, sales director Freddie.

"This part of the business has grown to 20% of turnover," said Mr Price, "and it’s brought us a following among big developers and contractors."

Another thriving element of the business is the Trade Centre, managed by operations director Kevin Tyler. This services the opposite end of Blumsom’s customer spectrum, the smaller builders, joiners and shopfitters, selling everything from sawn timber, sheet materials and mouldings, to tools and accessories. And its growth in turn prompted the company’s latest strategic move, the installation this year of a compact Weinig Cube planer moulder.

The Cube is highly flexible and requires minimal operator intervention, apart from keying in profiles and feeding in the timber.

"It’s a fantastic bit of kit which enabled the Trade Centre to launch a popular one-hour turnaround service on PAR and mouldings," said Mr Blumsom. "The rest of the time we use it for smaller mill orders, freeing the Powermats for longer runs."

While insulated by London’s economic resilience, Blumsom did see business dip during the downturn. But now the wider economy and the capital in particular are in increasingly strong recovery, sales are back on an upward track. In fact, the company has achieved 40% growth in two years.

In part to meet rising demand, Blumsom also continues to develop. It has recently replaced its fork lift fleet, and added three Bulmor Lancer sideloaders and a frontloader, with a Raimann Variorip and new warehouse set to be the next investments.

Beyond this, Mr Blumsom hinted at more projects in the pipeline, saying the company would not be standing still and would "continue to evolve with the latest new technology". He would not divulge any more, but whatever Blumsom has planned, it’s probably safe to say it won’t be me-too.