• John Woolmore became managing director of Becker Acroma in January this year.
• He was managing director of Junckers for 15 years.
• The company is helping customers drive up productivity.
• Improving the environmental performance of its products and its customers’ is a key focus.

When he started at wood flooring manufacturer Junckers in 1986, someone told John Woolmore, “once you go into the timber industry, you tend to stay there”.

Briefly he was the exception to this rule. Leaving Junckers in 2005 after 15 years as managing director, he moved into consultancy and took on interim posts, including 18 months as finance director of a PVCu window company.

But last May Mr Woolmore took another interim position as finance director at wood finishes specialist Becker Acroma. He was back in the industry and then, in January, was appointed to the managing director role. It was a move that clearly felt comfortable.

“I had my little flit and now I’ve come back!” he said.

But what a time to come back. Worldwide Becker Acroma still has nine manufacturing plants, but after the “erosion of its industrial base” caused by the migration of so many larger users off-shore, notably furniture companies, it ceased large-scale production in the UK last year and switched instead to distribution.

Following this, recession now faces the industry with the challenge of reducing costs and controlling working capital while encouraging sales. “That’s probably one of the most difficult bits – trying to increase sales in a market that is getting smaller,” said Mr Woolmore.

Crediting his competitive nature, however, he says he’s up for the challenge. From his experience at Junckers selling flooring lacquers, he was confident in the quality of Becker products and in his time as financial director he’d “identified a lot of similarities with what it wanted to do and what I’d done at Junckers”.

His new company serves “all areas of wood production”; interior and exterior joinery, furniture, kitchens, flooring and automotive (where it sells finishes for wood trim). Customers range from “market leaders with major industrial lines, to sole traders using simple spray machinery”, with the former sold to direct, the latter via distributors, including Becker’s Syntema network.

Currently, Mr Woolmore acknowledged, business is testing, particularly in the automotive sector and with suppliers to the construction industry. But he also maintains that many customers are adapting well, using the opportunity positively to rationalise and rebuild.

“A lot of businesses are possibly doing what should have been done in good times: reviewing operations, looking to see how they can make themselves more efficient and improve marketability. Unfortunately, these things only tend to occur when the bad times come.”

At the same time, he insisted, the economy isn’t at a standstill. There is still repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI) to go after. In fact he thinks this might be the timber industry’s saving grace; the sector that will continue to grow until a more general market upturn in 2010. Beyond this, he sees other opportunities and, for its part, Becker Acroma has started looking at other “segment markets and is trying to be a bit more imaginative in areas it wants to enter”.

Its biggest market sector remains exterior products. Here it has recently focused on developing its Laqvin collection of finishes and stains for industrially produced doors and windows.

“These have been developed using the latest technology to serve some of the largest customers in the industry,” said Mr Woolmore.

Becker is also known for products with added capabilities, such as the anti-bacterial lacquer Hygiene+ and Pyrolac fire protecting finish. These, said Mr Woolmore, remain niche, but the niches are getting bigger. For instance, increased stress on fire protection in public spaces is driving shopfitting demand for Pyrolac.

Another effect of recession, he believes, could be environmental issues taking a backseat with some businesses. But, he said, the industry must face the fact that tougher legislation in this area won’t go away because there’s a downturn. Key will be probable further controls on the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), an area, he maintains where Becker Acroma has been ahead of the game in pioneering the development of water-based alternatives.

Recession is also prompting companies in all fields to drive up productivity. And Becker Acroma, said Mr Woolmore, is focused on helping customers do just that.

“Finishing is often just one part of our customers’ production process, but it’s the area we know most about!” he said. “Through direct technical support on the production line, we’ve enabled them to increase line speeds and use our products more efficiently. We always tell them to concentrate on price per square metre, because the quality of our products, combined with our technical skills, ensure they go much further.”

Mr Woolmore was once told that good companies go forward in bad times and this is what he has planned for Becker Acroma. In the finish, that will leave it “well-placed to take advantage when the upturn comes”.