Malcolm Cowley always had an ambition to complete 50 years in the timber industry and when he retires from his position as Coillte Panel Products’ UK sales manager at the end of August, he can be satisfied that he’s achieved that goal.

Despite the career target, Malcolm’s entry into the timber industry was a matter of chance. When he went to Liverpool’s youth employment bureau in 1963, aged 17, there was the chance of two jobs – one with a travel agent, the other with the timber business WF Hollway & Brother. Ironically the latter promised more foreign travel, which attracted the young Malcolm, but his first task couldn’t have been further removed from the glamour of that promise.

"Initially I had the soul-destroying job of filing tea-stained delivery notes," he said.

He was later put in charge of gangs of dockers unloading timber at Liverpool docks.

"At 18 I was half their age. All they were interested in was having a good breakfast and I had to try to get them out in -3°C on a very exposed quay to turn over pieces of wood. It was good discipline in managing people."

The company, which dealt mainly in softwood and panel products, gave Malcolm a good grounding in the timber industry and enabled him to attend night school to become a licentiate of the Institute of Wood Science.

He was chipboard manager when he left in 1970, moving to the role of chipboard sales manager with the fairly fledgling company of Bambergers Timber & Plywood.

He spent another seven years there, before joining the agent, Bech Neale and then the Bootle office of Seaboard International, which supplied North American products, including Medite MDF, to the UK.

In 1980 Seaboard promoted him to head its Far Eastern plywood department and so he moved to south-east England. From there he moved to UCM Timber, where he had the brief to develop its Far Eastern plywood business.

Extensive travel

By this time the promise of foreign travel had been realised and he travelled extensively, often into remote areas in the Far East where, in the 1980s, transport was fairly primitive. In 1986 he found himself "marooned" in the Philippines during the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. His hosts in Manila offered to fly him out under cover of darkness and Malcolm was later relieved he hadn’t accepted their offer.

"Afterwards I thought they were probably just waiting for Marcos to take the same sort of route and shoot him out of the sky," he said.

Soon afterwards, when Medite’s marketing and sales director, Geoff Rhodes, asked Malcolm to join the company’s new European team, he welcomed the opportunity.

"I enjoyed selling Medite when I was with Seaboard," he said. "People didn’t know anything about it; they said it was too expensive and it wouldn’t sell but I must have had some sort of flavour of how revolutionary it could be."

Malcolm has remained with Medite, under its various owners, ever since. The changing ownership kept things interesting and he appreciates the emphasis on innovation by current owner Coillte Panel Products.

"Coillte wants to get away from cheap, commodity sales and add value to fill a space in a sophisticated market," he said, adding that other companies also need to play their part in developing products that are fit for purpose.

During his career, Malcolm has also taken a role in industry leadership, first as chairman of the East Anglia Timber Trade Association and then, from 2000-2001, as chairman of the National Panel Products Division of the Timber Trade Federation.

"It’s about putting something back into the industry," he said, which is why, when he retires in August, he will continue to work with the Timber Trades’ Benevolent Society (TTBS). He has been actively involved with the TTBS since 2002 when the late Barry Lewis invited him to a meeting of the London & Home Counties district committee, which now also includes East Anglia.

"Within about five minutes of being there I realised I’d end up volunteering for something and, sure enough, I volunteered to be a committee member."

Pivotal moment

It was a pivotal time for the region as there was really no committee. Keith Davies, who was in his 80s, had held it together virtually on his own but once Malcolm, Dave Francis of DHH and Sue Rowland of Ryall & Edwards stepped up he eventually relinquished the reins. Malcolm was elected president and, 10 years later, he is still in the role.

"There’s no succession. Once you have the job, it’s a job for life!"

In May this year, after two years as the TTBS honorary national treasurer, he was elected national president. So when he retires in August, although much of his time will be spent on the golf course, and possibly the bowling green, Malcolm will continue to devote many hours to the TTBS.

It’s a cause that’s dear to his heart. His father died when Malcolm was two years old, leaving his mother to bring up him and his brother on her own, so he knows how financially tough life can be.

"Through the applications the TTBS receives for assistance you see the sort of hardship people have to endure and it brings you to tears," he said. "Sometimes I wonder how people have been able to survive on the money they have coming in.

"Many years ago the trade wasn’t expansive with pension schemes and these days social welfare isn’t readily available. In a lot of cases these people have given their whole life to the timber industry and the TTBS is a way of helping them. We can’t pay major elements of financial obligations but we can make life a little bit easier, even if it’s just buying a television licence, giving them a hamper at Christmas, or one-off grants for decorating or a replacement boiler."

Last year the charity paid out nearly £100,000 in benefits.

But TTBS beneficiaries are not just retired timber traders or their dependants, there are also younger people whose finances are stretched after being forced to give up work through illness or injury.

Raising awareness

The majority of beneficiaries are recommended to the TTBS by other charities and one focus during Malcolm’s presidency will be to raise awareness in the timber industry that former employees could need assistance.

"I want people to stay in touch with former employees, to phone them at least once a year and see how they’re doing."

Part of the problem is that contact is lost as companies close or change hands but also some people believe the government will take care of the needy. It’s an impression Malcolm wants to dispel.

"There will always be the need for the TTBS to help people and it will escalate because more people will struggle as a result of the cuts in social welfare and the aging population," he said.

And the link between active and retired traders could be strengthened by more younger people being actively involved in the TTBS, although Malcolm acknowledges that work demands don’t always make this easy.

"One of the best ways to help the TTBS is to make donations, which account for 45% of our income," he said.

He was "quite overwhelmed" recently when two colleagues at Coillte Panel Products, Harriet Heardman and Becca Smith, successfully ran and walked the 100km London 2 Brighton Challenge to raise £3,000 for the charity.

"It was a huge commitment and they’ve done very well indeed," he said. There are some who think the TTBS’s £2.5m assets mean it has ample funds but Malcolm points out that those "crown jewels" generate only 45% of grants and the reserves are required to sustain the charity.

"We all know how difficult the stock exchange has been over the last four years so the TTBS’s assets have been going down," he said.

Although Malcolm’s commitment to the TTBS will continue, he is looking forward to retirement and to the new opportunities it holds.

The timber industry, which has provided him with a reasonable living and many good friends, is one he would recommend to young jobseekers now but it’s not a perfect industry.

"We need to sell the product better to make more money so we can invest more back into the industry to do more advertising."

But this, he said, is where the industry is it’s own worst enemy, undermining timber’s value by selling too cheaply. "Comparing the price we sold products for many years ago and the price that we sell today, there’s very little advancement. We’re not getting good value for our products."

Maintaining timber’s value is a matter of personal and professional integrity, and when Malcolm retires on August 30 he’ll be satisfied that not only did he complete 50 years in the timber industry, but he did so with honesty and integrity.

"It’s not always easy to be honest in a competitive environment but I’m the sort of salesman who would rather lose today’s sale to get tomorrow’s than mislead someone and certainly not get tomorrow’s sale. I’d rather be honest and maintain respect."