Normandie Bois Entreprises is described as less of a partnership, more a family. The five hardwood producers it comprises each runs as a separate, independent business. But, at the same time, they co-ordinate under the NBE umbrella (, as they have for over two decades, allowing customers to tap into the resources of five mills through one central sales, marketing and distribution operation.

“Having worked together over 25 years, we know each other’s business like our own, our different strengths and specialities,” said Vincent Corbière, owner-director of one of the mills, Corbière. “It’s a unique relationship which enables us to give customers a unique service; a range of products and the availability and flexibility a single mill would find hard to provide.”

He added that, for most of NBE’s history, a large part of the export customers who have taken advantage of this service have been in the UK. In fact, its UK sales, primarily oak, now account for around 50% of the group’s total turnover of €12m. Meanwhile, cross-Channel demand is currently running at exceptional levels – on which more below.

NBE traces its roots back to the late 1980s when 17 Normandy businesses got together to develop their exports. They included hardwood and softwood mills, pallet producers and forest managers supplying logs. One by one, however, the other businesses moved away, ultimately leaving the NBE five; Corbière, Raison Bois, Belleme Bois, Noel and Milcent, all of which are within 50 miles of one another.

“As the years went by NBE moved more towards specialising in hardwood and particularly oak and we recognised there was real potential to develop this model of export business,” said Mr Corbière.

“While we all have our own local and national customers, we also work together on some projects in France and occasionally, on big or unusual orders, we’ll collaborate with other mills, too.”

Its UK business was central to NBE from the outset and over the years it’s grown exponentially. Today it has more than 30 long-term British customers. Some might take a couple of deliveries a year, others up to one a week and NBE is focused on full truck loads.

The group attributes its attraction to UK customers to its particular service and the fact it tailors products to their requirements. Geography no doubt also helps. Most orders are dispatched 10 days from receipt and trucks reach their UK destinations within 24-48 hours.

Also fundamental to NBE’s UK success, Mr Corbière acknowledges, is the historic British love affair with French oak.

“UK customers are familiar with it, they like the quality, the way it looks and works,” he said. “In fact, the British do more with French oak than the French do. Here uses include agricultural buildings, footbridges, decking and cladding. In the UK it’s used for some of these too but also much more extensively in construction and joinery.”

Principal NBE oak products selling in the UK include fresh sawn beams for various construction applications, kiln-dried boules for joinery, ripped to width SE, 27mm lumber for cladding, decking and flooring, plus 34mm, 54mm, 65mm and 80mm boards, also primarily for joinery. It offers second transformation items too, including frames, shingles and finger-jointed products.

While the mills additionally process beech, chestnut, ash, red cedar and Douglas fir, NBE does not sell these in major quantities to the UK, although it has had some interest recently in chestnut shingles, a new line from Belleme Bois.

When UK customers receive a truck-load of oak from NBE, it may have been processed by one mill, or derive from several.

“That’s what enables us to be so reactive to customers’ requirements and, where needed fulfil urgent requests,” said Helen Capps- Tunwell, British bilingual head of sales and marketing at Raison Bois. “But, we can also guarantee that the timber will be a uniform, consistent quality. All the mills work to the same grading standard and, while they source their logs independently, it’s all from within 200km of their premises, so it’s a very homogenous material.”

All orders go through Pam Harrington, who’s British, but has lived in France for 16 years. Having worked with NBE for five years, she’s thoroughly acquainted with their individual attributes, strengths and capacities.

“Pam has the necessary overview of the individual company’s operations, all order processing feeds through her and she dispatches through the mills. It’s an effective, tried and tested system,” said Ms Capps- Tunwell. “We also feel it’s an advantage to have a native English-speaker as the contact point for UK customers.”

If they have a particular product request or technical inquiry, she added, customers can also communicate direct with the individual mills.

An especially popular NBE speciality in the UK is its cut-to-list service, whereby customers send their customers’ lists to France and the mills cut and pack the timber accordingly.

“It’s a great time saver and customers know we’ve got the know-how and experience to get it right,” said Ms Capps-Tunwell. “It just makes their lives easier.”

NBE provides primarily a full-load service to the UK for a number of reasons. One is efficiency and cost effectiveness. Its main customers are merchant-distributors and it also doesn’t want to be seen treading on their toes by dealing with their customers.

The full-load service makes even more business sense post-Brexit.

NBE has taken steps to make the transition to sourcing from France from outside the EU as seamless and painless as possible for UK customers.

“We’ve adapted to the new requirements on customs declarations and in terms of documentation customers need under the UK Timber Regulation – it’s all become second nature,” said Ms Capps-Tunwell.

The group does, however, acknowledge that the new regime has caused some issues and to an extent limited flexibility.

“Our full truckloads of oak whizz through the new customs process; we know our HS codes, our customs clearance paperwork is done well in advance, there’s no tariff, so no problems,” said Ms Capps-Tunwell. “But in the past customers could call us and ask last minute if perhaps we could just pop a bit of 6×6 onto a load. It was easy and convenient. Now we no longer have that choice once the truck is loaded and the documentation is done.”

It follows that it’s more challenging to deal with exceptional small requests – with the added issue that haulage for these is less reliable and costs have risen sharply since Brexit. NBE, however, will strive to find a solution.

Another topic discussed with some frustration is the UK’s switch from CE to UKCA product marking.

“TRADA says they could audit us to UKCA mark, but ultimately we decided that, as we already jump through one set of hoops for CE marking, we weren’t prepared to jump through another,” said Ms Capps-Tunwell. “Of course, we’ve consulted with UK customers, but they’ve said they don’t mind, so there’s no sign it’s going to impact on business.”

Certainly so far Brexit hasn’t affected trade, nor, it seems, Covid-19. Currently NBE is “maxed out”.

“Apart from some uncertainty at the start of the pandemic, demand continued pretty strongly throughout,” said Mr Corbière. “We weren’t as quiet as normal through the winter, and since then sales have just continued to rise.”

“UK customers tell us a lot of demand has come from an increase in refurbishment and consumers putting in home offices through the pandemic period, but it’s been across the board,” said Ms Capps-Tunwell. “In fact, it’s got to the point where, for the moment, we would be unable to expand our customer base without increasing supply, which would be quite a challenge.”

Looking forward, one key concern for NBE is French raw material supply. With booming global demand for timber and virtually no export constraints, 30% and rising of France’s oak logs go abroad. It’s leaving sawmillers increasingly worried.

“It’s a serious issue, with demand growing especially strongly in the Asian market, notably China,” said Mr Corbière. “French sawmillers are pressing government to take action to protect the industry and Fédération National du Bois has put out a ‘Stop the log exports’ petition and is also talking with the government.”

Despite this shadow over the sector, however, NBE evidently still has an underlying confidence in its unique business model and its UK customer base.

Asked if further mills could come into the group, Mr Corbière, said it’s a possibility. But they’ll clearly have to meet a very particular standard to join the NBE family.