Duncan Marriott has been poring over the record books, seeking nuggets of information that will reveal more about his company’s history.

Mr Marriott is managing director of Atkins & Cripps Ltd (A&C), a specialist hardwood importer and distributor, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Since 1996 A&C has been part of Coastal Lumber, reckoned to be the largest producer of North American hardwoods.

And, under Coastal’s influence, the company has been rejuvenated, edging into areas like veneered MDF and American pine decking that would have been anathema to the A&C of the 1960s and 1970s.

A sense of tradition is inevitable. The business of A Cripps dates back to 1852. in 1946, it was acquired by importer SJ Atkins, based in London’s East End, and the combined business of SJ Atkins & Cripps moved to its current headquarters in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, in 1968.

Paper plans

But its sale in 1987 to the Robert Horne Group, a paper distribution company based in Northampton, sparked a period of upheaval that only ended with its acquisition by Coastal Lumber.

Duncan Marriott explains: ‘Fairly early on we were identified as a non-core business. But we were making money and had positive cash flow, and the new owners placed great emphasis on any eventual sale being to the right party.’

In 1996 A&C was sold to Coastal Lumber, one of the largest privately owned forest products companies in the US. And here it seems to have found its natural home, with a new strategic role as the UK distributor of a fully timber-focused corporation.

‘Back in the early ’90s, when we were “up for sale”, there was not much investment. But Coastal are looking to take the business forward.’

Hence, for example, A&C’s purchase last year of J Bland & Co, a West Yorkshire timber merchant. Unlike A&C, J Bland mainly sold softwood and softwood mouldings. So the deal has given A&C a foothold in the north of England while both companies gain access to a wider product range.

The addition complements A&C’s other regional depot, based in Saltash, Devon. With 20,000ft2 of covered storage, it is thought to be one of the West Country’s biggest specialist hardwood distributors.

Together with the Bishop’s Stortford HQ, with its 70,000ft2 of covered storage, the two depots enable A&C to service a sizeable proportion of England, leaving Wales, the north-east of England and all of Scotland still to conquer.

Prestigious projects

It has benefited from several high-profile projects over the years, from the 90 miles of 12mm x 700m flooring in London’s Tate Modern gallery to all the green oak cladding and decking for the new National Maritime Museum in Cornwall.

A&C had long been known as a distributor of quality, highly selected hardwood. In the past 10 years the emphasis has switched firmly from tropical to temperate species, with the latter now accounting for 75% of turnover.

It boasts an impressive level of in-house expertise. Half its 63 employees have been with the company for well over a decade, providing a vital knowledge bank for customers as well as the company.

At the core of A&C’s service is a high level of selection. The client may pay more for a length of timber, but the quality will be high, the length and width will be right and levels of waste consequently low. ‘Our ethos has always been that we will turn through pack after pack to get the piece of timber the customer wants,’ says Mr Haywood. ‘And customers are very specific about what they want to buy nowadays.’

Mr Haywood explains: ‘We would say “okay, our price per foot looks more expensive than the competition, but here’s a lump sum price and we guarantee the job won’t come in at any more”. Lots of customers liked that.’

Lump sum pricing requires A&C to look through every piece of wood, checking it for dimensions and quality. But this leads to a further benefit to the client: every piece of wood will be marked to show what it will cut. ‘Previously the customer just got this huge pile of wood in and had to turn through it all, deciding how to cut it. With us, they get the boards pre-marked, so their savings are tremendous.’

This thinking has been carried over into one of A&C’s newest activities – bulk packs of temperate hardwood, supplied principally by its US parent. Bulk supply would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But times are changing, and A&C is prepared to change too – provided it can still give the extra service ‘twist’ with added value and not become a commodity broker.

Thanks to this enhanced service on what would normally be considered the more competitive end of the market, packs have already grown to constitute 15% of A&C’s £10m annual sales.

One product that has contributed heavily to a 40% slump in UK hardwood lumber consumption since the late 1980s is MDF. Once again, A&C has found its own way to respond. In February of this year it took its first delivery of high quality hardwood-veneered MDF boards, from two European suppliers, and David Haywood confesses he is amazed at how fast it is selling.

‘There has been more and more demand for high quality veneered board – we’re always getting calls about it – so now we’re holding stocks of veneered sheets from 6mm to 25mm, in ash, cherry, maple, oak and beech. And we’ve also had a large requirement for sapele and chestnut.’

So far, most of the demand has come from existing hardwood customers, typically those making kitchens, furniture or shopfittings – and even model boats. So existing customers are happy, but A&C also now has the chance to break into a new markets.