¦ Neil Donaldson is the fifth generation to lead the James Donaldson Group.
¦ He started work in the Tayport yard in 1975.
¦ He has launched the Donaldson Life & Leadership Academy.
¦ Salmon fishing is his favourite pastime.

When the four generations that have gone before you have been steeped in timber, the likelihood is you’ll either be put off a career in the industry or you’ll never consider anything else.

For Neil Donaldson, chairman and chief executive of the James Donaldson & Sons group of companies, it was clearly the latter option. “Wood was in my bones,” he said. “I’d been interested in the business since I was born.”

Neil, the fifth generation Donaldson to take the helm, has been with the company for 35 years and is as enthusiastic about the business now as he was when he first set foot in the yard at Tayport.

He cut his teeth at the tender age of 16, just after his O Levels, when a summer job took him to Finland to work for Rauma Repola, a company with which Donaldsons had strong trade links.

Early years

A couple of years at college studying for an HND in Business Studies followed school and then it was straight to work at the family firm.

“I joined in 1975 and earned my spurs at the Tayport site, working in the mill and in the yard for a couple of years. Then I went on the road selling in Edinburgh and I loved it. I realised that I enjoyed that side of the job more than the production side and I learned more about the industry during that time on the road than at any other.”

A year later, aged 20, he married Val and, over the next few years, juggled the demands of his sales job, a young family – Michael was born in 1980, Andrew in 1982 and Jennifer in 1985 – and further stuadying.

“I did a postgraduate degree in marketing at Heriot Watt University in 1981 and a Masters in strategic planning in 1983,” said Neil. “I did night classes over four years and it was really hard work but at the end of it I felt I was equipped, so when dad was offered the job of president of The Timber Trade Federation in 1985 and became London based, I took over as managing director.”

It was at this point that the horizon really started to broaden. “A real turning point for me was in 1992 when I joined the Young Presidents Organisation,” he said. “Through it I went to Harvard a couple of times and did two business programmes. That gave me the confidence to do what I wanted to with the company.”

The consequence of this boosted confidence was the range of businesses, both start-ups and acquisitions that make up the Donaldson Group today – James Donaldson Timber, Donaldson Timber Engineering, MGM Timber, Parker Kislingbury and JDT Chorley.

Strong team

He’s immensely proud of what has been achieved over the last 25 years and is quick to attribute this to the “really strong team” around him. He’s also obviously proud of the fact that the company remains a private, family controlled business and is “thrilled” that sons Michael and Andrew are now involved. Michael is general manager at DTE in Buckhaven, while chartered accountant Andrew has just joined after a spell at KPMG. Jennifer, meanwhile, is pursuing a career at Canongate publishers in Edinburgh. And, while it may be a couple of decades away, the seventh generation, grandchildren Molly and Archie, is already waiting in the wings.

There have been many milestones along the way, including following in his father’s footsteps as chairman of TRADA (2000-2002) and of the Scottish Timber Trade Association (2004-2006) and as TTF president (2006-2008), which he considers a great honour.

He’s still involved with the TTF and represents it as an observer on the Wood for Good board. “I’m very keen to help in the promotion of timber and think I still have a role to play in that – particularly in encouraging greater collaboration within the various sectors within the industry.”

Other ambitions include seeing the next generation of Donaldsons progress to senior positions within the company, maybe running it at some point. “I’m a custodian for my watch and if I can get to the end of my term in the knowledge that the next generation is coming through and the business is in good hands, then I’ll have done my job and I’ll get a lot of satisfaction from that.”

He adds that, while he has no intention of going anywhere for the foreseeable future, as his sons’ and colleagues’ roles develop, there is arguably less for him to do. “I still have to be the hand on the tiller, but the next generation is actually a bit hungrier than I am now,” he said.

That doesn’t mean his enthusiasm for the business has abated. “You’ve got to enjoy your work. You’ve got to get up in the morning and say ‘this is really good craic’ and I’ve done that every day of my life. There’s great chemistry within the business and I absolutely love it.”

Leadership academy

And there are other projects outside of normal business to exercise the Donaldson mind. The company has started the Donaldson Life & Leadership Academy, a charity to raise money to send local underprivileged children to Columba 1400, an Isle of Skye-based charitable organisation. “It’s our 150th anniversary this year and we could have had the biggest party known to man,” said Neil. “But that’s not what we’re about.

“We’re a local, family business and felt we should do something for the local community. So we’ve put £150,000 into this charity to take 16 children from the area to Columba 1400 for a week where they go canoeing and mountain climbing and learn core values such as integrity, perseverance, service and focus.

“We want to grow the charity so we’re trying to raise another £150,000. I think giving these kids a start in life is a better legacy to leave than just empty champagne bottles.”

There is little spare time in Neil Donaldson’s diary, particularly as he has a couple of non-executive posts outside the family business – he is chairman of Crieff Hydro, a privately-run hotel company, and chairman of Securities Trust of Scotland, an investment trust. However, when the foot does come off the accelerator a bit, his “absolute out and out passion” is salmon fishing.

“I enjoy golf and skiing and I used to be a very good squash player – I was in the finals of the world’s over 35s doubles back in the distant past – but the first time I went fishing I caught a salmon and I was the one that was hooked.”