Chris Powell’s career has been driven by two passions; sales and wood. The result is CP Timber, one of the UK’s leading independent hardwood and clears importeragents; a company that sources globally and sells nationwide.

Mr Powell’s twin motivations, it seems, have been pretty much equally influential. ‘First and foremost’, he insists, he’s a salesman.

"It’s where I started and really what I am. I’ve always enjoyed that interaction with customers."

At the same time, there’s no concealing the depths of feelings for timber. Industry colleagues recall a conference where they drove him to take the microphone when he felt a speaker was not on top of his brief. "I do ask the hard questions!" he grinned. "But if you’re addressing the trade, you should have the answers!"

The passion also finds expression in the hardwood office furniture in CP Timber’s Hertford boardroom.

"It’s from Frank Boddy’s offices," said Mr Powell. "He’s someone I really respect, and when he closed his business, I snapped it up. I think our trade’s heritage is important and this is part of it."

In short, he admits, it’s a love affair. "OK, I’m a tree hugger!" he said. "I like the trade, the camaraderie and I love wood itself. What’s not to love when you see the American hardwood forest in the fall, or feel the history in the 660 year-old Douglas fir we recently brought over. And all you need to produce it are sunshine and rain."

After such a heartfelt statement, it’s surprising to learn Mr Powell is not a timberman born and bred, but he didn’t discover the trade until his mid-twenties, and then by luck.

"I’ve always lived in Hertford and after school, at 16, got a job at a local metal wholesaler," he said. "In fact, it was great experience. They trained me in everything from cutting sheet metal, to deliveries, accounts and sales."

The business grounding then broadened at a Cheshunt wallpaper wholesaler.

"The metal business relocated and my dad, who I greatly respected, said I should move on," he said. "It was sound advice. Coleman’s, the wallpaper firm, gave me the complete perspective on running a company, especially the importance of taking care of staff. I’ve drawn on those lessons ever since and still keep in touch with the family."

The move to timber finally came four years later because Mr Powell needed a lodger in his new flat.

"The guy was Chris James, now of Nason Davies," he said. "Then he was at Carl Ronnow and he tipped me off to a job. It sounded interesting and I went for it." It turned out to be an even more formative experience.

"I started at Ronnow’s King’s Lynn Sawmill Marketing operation selling softwood," said Mr Powell. "Next they switched me to hardwood, where my bosses were John Speechley and David McKee, who taught me an enormous amount."

In fact, he was so well taught, four years on he felt equipped to start his own business. "It was probably arrogance of youth, but I looked around the sales office and thought ‘I could do better ‘! " said Mr Powell. "I’d met Danny Catherall through rugby and together we launched our hardwoods and clears company Timber Connection (TC)."

But despite the new business thriving, seven years on the independence itch struck again.

"TC was a success, but I wanted to steer my own ship," said Mr Powell. "So I sold my half and CP Timber was born."

The company started modestly, with a small office, one employee and its direction uncertain, but once the hardwood and clears format crystallised, momentum grew.

Today CP has 16 staff, with clears under Peter Winter in Glossop, Jan Paliowski heading African in Oxford, and Mark Sanz managing the Hertford main office and its six-strong sales team.

While his own drive and ambition have clearly been key, Mr Powell, doesn’t hesitate to put CP’s success primarily down to its people.

"It’s their commitment, knowledge and the way we work together," he said. "We’ve tried to create that family ethos I saw at Coleman’s."

CP aims to hire the best too. "If someone good becomes available, we’ll create a position, with our latest recruit being Geoff Stentiford, who had 28 years at Brooks Bros." The workforce does, in fact, include actual family as well. Mr Powell’s 24-year-old son George is on the Hertford sales desk and father Maurice, 84, is CP’s ‘money chaser’. "It keeps him out of my mum’s hair," he said.

The value of the strong team ethic was brought home dramatically when Mr Powell was laid low with first surgery, then illness. "I was out over nine months," he said. "But everyone was fantastic. Other people probably weren’t even aware I was away!" Colleagues and friends elsewhere in the trade have also contributed to CP’s development.

"One person in particular was Buck Harless, CEO of US timber giant Gilco, one of the last American timber barons," said Mr Powell. "He was my mentor into his 90s." In some ways the CP operation hasn’t changed in 17 years.

"One is honouring customer and supplier relationships – to me a handshake is a handshake," said Mr Powell. "We also still primarily sell bulk to bigger merchant/ importers. We sometimes deal with customers’ customers – you have to be realistic – but only after clearing it first." However, other aspects off the company have altered radically, notably the blurring of trade boundaries.

"Starting as a broker, we’re now a trader/ agent/importer," said Mr Powell. "Our preference is still sourcing your wood worldwide and selling it to you. But we have to satisfy just in time as well as forward demand, so today we also hold 5,000m3 of stock at Denholm’s in Liverpool."

The supply side picture has shifted too. "We’re now around 20% clears, 30% African, 20% European and 30% US and elsewhere," he said. "We used to do more African, but pricing in particular species became ridiculous and, if we’re not making money on something, it goes."

Another major shift has come, of course, in environmental demands on the industry; the worldwide spread of certification and anti-illegal timber legislation, such as the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR). It’s another area where Mr Powell has strong opinions.

"We want to safeguard the environment and forest as much as anyone," said Mr Powell. "But, as it’s not feasible to get the due diligence paperwork from some sources, the EUTR risks restricting our supply-base, which could damage both. The administration also takes too much time and I’d like to see the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) become an EUTR Monitoring Organisation, like other EU federations, and shoulder more of the due diligence burden centrally.

"Our other issue is getting customers to pay a premium for certified or legally verified timber. Currently, they’re not."

While a committed TTF supporter, and now chairman of its National Hardwood Division, Mr Powell is critical of the wider sector in other respects too, CP included.

"I think we’re lazy in terms of acting like a coherent trade," he said. "For instance in training, while we’ve made progress, we’re still not attracting enough bright young people to replace old dinosaurs like me!" He views marketing as another weakness. "The American Hardwood Export Council do some fantastic creative and technical promotional projects and have the right target in architects and specifiers. But the rest of us need still to step up as well."

Then there’s taking concerted action on key trading issues. "An important one currently is the end of the EU derogation on plant health controls on American ash, which could halt the trade," said Mr Powell. "We may only have 10 years’ supply because of their Emerald Ash Borer infestation, but we should stay in the business while we can."

These issues aside, however, the Powell passion for the trade is clearly undimmed – it’s probably what makes the critical comments so heartfelt.

As one of the ‘old dinosaurs’, albeit just 53, he’s also now looking increasingly to legacy. "This trade has given me such a great life, I’m wondering what I can give back." Taking things to their natural conclusion, he’s even picked out his coffin wood! "It’s got to be US white oak, the mainstay of the business," he said. "And, yes, we do hold coffin stock!"