The six finalists in the 2015 TTJ Career Development Award were given an insight into the Irish forest products sector in early March, thanks to a tour organised by the category sponsor last year Glennon Brothers.

The tour began at Glennon Brothers’ Fermoy sawmill and concluded at Coillte Panel Products’ Medite mill in Clonmel, taking in a presentation by logistics specialist Combilift and a Glennon Brothers’ forest harvesting operation on the way. Glennon Brothers’ hospitality also included fine dining and accommodation at the five-star Castlemartyr resort and a tour of the Jameson whiskey distillery.

Enjoying the tour were Dominic Manfredini, from James Latham’s Leeds branch, who won the under-25 age group category of the Award and runners-up Tom Jones, also from James Latham’s Leeds branch and Joe Daniells from Snows Timber.

From the over-25 category of the Award, the visitors included the winner, Dan Doyley, from T Brewer’s Clapham branch and runners-up Simon Brock of TFT Wood Experts Ltd and Richard Broome of Timbmet.

They were accompanied by Bryan McGarrigle, market executive at Enterprise Ireland, which supported the tour, and Jan Antonovics, commercial manager at TFT Wood Experts.

For most of the group it was a first visit to Ireland and, in some cases, a first experience of large-scale sawmilling and panel production. Glennon Brothers said it had been keen to acknowledge the importance of career development within the industry and to show the vertical integration within the Irish forest products sector and explain how important the UK is as an export market.

Speaking at the dinner and referring to the group as “the future leaders of this industry”, joint managing director Mike Glennon said he believed it was important to support career development and that all types of learning experiences within the forest products sector were relevant, regardless of one’s current role.

“You might think you are just working within a certain field but you don’t always know what kind of job you’re going to be doing in the future, particularly when there are mergers and acquisitions in the industry,” he said. “You need to learn everything you can. So, for example, you may only be working with hardwoods at the moment, but you need to learn about softwoods too.”

Mr Glennon went on to explain how important trade is between Ireland and the UK and highlighted how the former’s economy has improved over the last two years.

“GDP rose by 6.7% in 2015 and exports have increased at a double digit rate over the last two years,” he said. “Unemployment has fallen to under 9%, down from 15% in 2012, and consumer confidence is at its highest level in 10 years.”

He added that the Central Bank had forecast that the Irish economy would grow at almost 5% in 2016 but that it identified the potential UK exit from the EU as a risk.

“A Brexit would have a major impact on Ireland. Along with the implications for trade between Britain and Ireland, we would return to having an economic border on the island of Ireland, separating the north and south,” said Mr Glennon. “In light of the progress that has been made in developing British/Irish relations in the last few years, that would be a backward step.”

He said he hoped the “incredibly close relationship” between the two nations could continue to be developed in the future and highlighted some notable trade statistics.

“In 2014, exports of goods and services from the UK to Ireland totalled £28bn, making Ireland the UK’s fifth largest export market – according to the chancellor of the exchequer, every man, woman and child in Ireland spends an average of £3,600 per year on British goods.”

Heading the other way, Mr Glennon said that more than 17% of all Irish exports were destined for the UK, making it Ireland’s largest export market. “UK/Ireland trade is worth €1bn a week,” he said.

He went on to say that sawn softwood exports amounted to €122m and woodbased panel exports to €198m in 2014 – and during the visit, the group witnessed some of the production destined for the UK, including to their own businesses, for themselves.

T Brewer’s Dan Doyley said he found his first tour of a sawmill “very beneficial”, and that he was “amazed” by the size of the Medite plant. He added that the scale of the various operations and the integration within the forest product sectors had surprised him and had been “an eye opener”.

Dominic Manfredini, from James Latham’s Leeds branch, said he’d visited plywood mills in the past but the sawmill and MDF plant were new experiences and had broadened his horizons.

“It was extremely interesting comparing the differences in the manufacturing processes,” he said. He also said he found the forest harvesting operation far more interesting than he had expected. “The fact that it’s a one-man job to cut the trees into logs is fantastic.”

For Joe Daniells of Snows Timber, experiencing the mill and harvesting processes has made him more open to the use of home-grown material in the future, he said.

“I mainly trade in sawn and finished product and this was the first time I have visited a sawmill and followed the process from log form to sawn boards.” The “speed and accuracy” of the forest harvesting operation was extremely impressive, said Mr Daniells, adding that he was “staggered at the scale of production” at the Medite plant given the relatively few personnel needed to run it – just 16 at the weekends.

Having spent the last 23 years working with hardwoods, Timbmet assistant depot manager Richard Broome said he had welcomed the opportunity to see softwood processing and panel manufacture.

“I have visited a sawmill in America, so this wasn’t my first time, but I have to say I was very impressed with the set up at Glennon Brothers,” said Mr Broome. “It was very educational to follow the whole process from stage one, when they graded the logs, all the way through to the final product. I also liked the fact that they looked at each log and cut according to the best yield.”

Mr Broome was also struck by the accuracy and speed afforded by the forest harvesting technology and said it was good to see the reforestation of an adjacent previously harvested plot.

The presentation by Combilift product manager Jason Gilmour had also been very useful he said, adding that the new pedestrian Combi-WR model looked particularly interesting. Timbmet already has a fleet of the multi-directional forklifts, including models that Combilift designed in order to allow double packs to be carried.

TFT Woodexperts Simon Brock had visited sawmills before but the tour of Glennon Brothers’ Fermoy facility was the most in-depth, he said.

“It is an amazing facility,” he said. “Fascinating to see all the technology that goes into producing cut timber – and also the sheer numbers involved, such as how many lorry loads of timber are processed in a day and so on. Some great ‘big boys toys’ on site as well, such as the [Sennebogen] grabber that can lift 15 tonnes of logs in one go.”

The Timberjack forest harvester was also “a very impressive bit of kit”, said Mr Brock. “I knew the theory and had seen some videos but had never seen a harvester in operation first-hand.”

Mr Brock said he had toured a chipboard mill before, so knew to expect “very little evidence of human beings” on site at the Medite MDF plant but added that he had been “struck by the amount of research and development going on at Medite”.

“They really are not content to sit on their laurels but are constantly developing new products and re-thinking the possibilities for MDF,” he said.

TFT Woodexperts colleague Jan Antonovics, commercial manager, agreed that the Glennon Brothers’ sawmill was impressive for its capacity and the variety of sawn products it makes. “Their innovative approach and extensive investment in computer technology to optimise log processing is certainly a credit to what is essentially still a family business.”

She also noted the wide-ranging portfolio of products manufactured by Medite and remarked on the huge volume of woodchips that is required to feed the plant.

The group was unanimous in its appreciation of the welcome it received throughout the trip.

“I had heard that Irish hospitality was legendary and my expectations were exceeded in this regard,” said Ms Antonovics. “I was blown away by the care and generosity of Glennon Brothers,” agreed Mr Brock. “We were all made to feel we’d won the Career Development Award – even those of us who didn’t. It seemed like Glennon Brothers genuinely did it all out of a conviction of the importance of younger people in the industry and those couple of days were an amazing way to show their belief in us.”

TFT Woodexperts provided training for several of the finalists

Simon Brock of TFT Woodexperts was awarded the Certificate in Wood Technology from the institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (ioM3) with a distinction.

The next level he could do, level 6 diploma in Wood science, is currently being developed and will be available by the summer.

Tom Jones and dominic Manfredini of James latham have completed their Timber and panel products (Tpp) level 2 examination of the ioM3 Wood Technology society (formerly the institute of Wood science) and have now begun the new course TFT Woodexperts, national skills Academy – Materials, production and supply (nsA-Mps) level 4 Certificate in Timber Technology, along with seven others from lathams.

Jan Antonovics said that negotiations are ongoing with Timbmet to send delegates on the new level 4 course soon and that 19 other students from four other companies have already enrolled on it.

Discussions are also under way with grafton group (new owner of T Brewer) regarding the level 4 Certificate and three more delegates from lathams have just started Tpp level 2.