When Luke Roberts stepped onto the stage to collect his TTJ Career Development Award back in 2017 he was “absolutely elated” and proud that years of really hard work had been recognised.

But that wasn’t the end of his career development, because two years later he was promoted to the top job at Donaldson Timber Engineering (DTE). His appointment in November 2019 as managing director of the company, which is part of the James Donaldson & Sons (JDS) group, followed the departure of Jonathan Fellingham, who had been MD since 2009.

Mr Roberts, who studied architecture at university, began his career as an assistant site manager at Benson’s before moving to National Hickman as a trainee I-joist designer. Four years later he moved to Cox Long, where he was I-joist manager for three years, a job he took on again when he joined DTE at its Ilkeston branch in 2007.

He became general manager of Ilkeston in 2011 and was promoted to business development director in 2017, the role he held when he was put forward for his TTJ Award.

A read through of the entry form for the TTJ Award illustrates Mr Roberts’s work ethic and belief in training and mentoring in the workplace but also signals his intention to continue that with DTE employees during his management of the company.

He is grateful to Jonathan Fellingham for encouraging him to follow in his footsteps by studying for a post-graduate diploma in applied management from Warwick Business School.

His study was sponsored by DTE and the 18-month part-time course taught management knowledge and skills that consider leadership, strategy, operations, collaborative change management, organisational dynamics and the links between marketing, client relationships and finance.

“The post-grad diploma came at just the right time for me,” said Mr Roberts. “I had been a branch manager for a long time and had kind of got stuck in that bracket where my goals were all about designing enough I-joists, manufacturing enough I-joists and selling enough I-joists. I set a budget and did everything to achieve it without looking more broadly and I wasn’t empowering my team as much as I wanted to.

“The diploma course gave me a safe environment to practice new ideas and new approaches and techniques and because it dovetailed with my job I could comfortably bleed them in and see how they worked.”

He added that it was this that had given him the real desire to look at what he could do for everyone within the business and it led him to mentor and coach high potential employees on DTE’s assistant general managers’ (AGM) programme. And, should anyone have any doubts of the value of training, he was living proof that it could boost career prospects.

The two-year AGM course integrates DTE’s bespoke training on specific company procedures with the ILM3 management apprenticeship scheme. Not only did Mr Roberts help to set the course up, he also ran some of the sessions and he and the group’s HR director, Rowena McBlane, attended each of them.

A real bonus of the course was that employees stayed in touch with each other and “connectivity between branches has massively improved because of that”.

There are plenty more training opportunities, with JDS running its own scheme, which is available to DTE employees, sales courses and IML3 & 5 courses. Two general managers are also about to embark on a similar course to the diploma Mr Roberts studied for (the Warwick Business School no longer runs the post-grad diploma in applied management).

DTE’s new MD is clearly keen to empower and engage with employees and to pursue “modern ideas of management”.

“In the past a manager might have had one quite rigid approach to everyone, which was ‘I want this done and this is how you are going to do it’. When I went on the diploma course it became clear to me that some people need that kind of direction but with others it’s actually holding them back.

“It opened my eyes to the fact that there is more than one way to do something and [management] is about assessing your team, finding out what actually engages and inspires them and adopting more of a coaching style. For me it’s the people at DTE who are really important and they are the ones who will make the business successful, not just me on my own.”

And the business is undoubtedly on a strong footing, with turnover for this financial year (April to April) set to hit around £85m.

“The obvious target in the next five years is to achieve £100m turnover,” said Mr Roberts. “And that’s not silly growth, it’s 2-3% each year, which is achievable.”

The market over the last couple of years has been “generally very good”, with DTE growth probably down to winning share, rather than the market itself expanding. Having said that, Help to Buy has played a part.

“I think that is widely viewed by the industry as a good initiative by the government and it would be great to know if it will be replaced with something similar when it ends in 2023. Interest rates have also been low and there has been a 3% increase in units built by the large national builders.

“Now that the election has happened and Brexit has moved on to the next stage I think the nationals, the medium and even the small builders will be encouraged to release some of the projects they had on hold, so I’m quite optimistic about the outlook.”

DTE is the UK’s leading supplier of roof trusses, I-joists and open web joists (it designs all its flooring systems using either Metsä Wood’s Finnjoist or Mitek’s Posi-Joist). It also supplies firring timbers used in flat roofs to create a slope for rainwater to run off into the gutters, and a range of Egger structural chipboard flooring products.

On the roof truss front it offers ‘standard’, attic and feature trusses (glulam or Kerto LVL) and it’s the former that makes up the vast majority of trussed rafter sales.

“Maybe one in 5,000 of the trusses we send out would be feature trusses,” said Mr Roberts. “It’s a very high end and limited market – but it’s a great product and when the connections are done right they look fantastic.”

Meanwhile, for every 100 sets of standard roof trusses DTE probably only sends out one attic roof truss now.

“Five years ago the ratio would have been higher, maybe 10:1, but there has been a massive reduction in demand for attic trusses because they’ve been replaced by panelised roof systems.”

He added that this had impacted the business – and that of other roof truss manufacturers, of course – because attic trusses command around double the price of standard trusses.

On the flip side, however, sales of the company’s spandrel panels have grown fourfold in the last five years. “Spandrel panels are where all the growth has been for all the roof manufacturers,” said Mr Roberts. “The biggest challenge has been that spandrel panels are more of a timber frame element than a traditional build one, so we’ve had to learn how to manufacture and move them. The panels are clad with fermacell, which is a heavy product, so manipulating them around the factory, loading and unloading onto a lorry has been a steep learning curve.

“We’ve now been on that journey and have all the processes and health and safety elements and standards in place and we’re in a great position. There has been a huge increase in sales and I can only see that continuing because more people are definitely taking the product up.”

Looking ahead, the biggest challenge he sees on the horizon is the skills shortage and attracting new people to the timber industry – hence his determination to develop his own employees careers.

“If you can get someone in at a young age and show them there is a path and it’s a career rather than just a job, then it becomes more interesting and enticing than working in other industries. And I think there is much more chance of retaining that worker if they can see there are opportunities for everyone who wants to develop.”

As for DTE as a business, Mr Roberts sees future growth coming from working more closely with its sister businesses – James Donaldson Timber, MGM Timber and James Donaldson Insulation.

“We all have products that we sell separately and I think the future is about how we bring those closer together and offer more of a portfolio of products to the same customer at the same time,” he said. “By being more connective we can talk to each other’s customer bases and offer a more cohesive plan.”