TTJ: The previous focus of Södra’s business was more on the housebuilding sector. Why and how is attention turning more to the merchant sector?

NBR: Pre-2008, Södra’s focus was primarily on supplying trussed rafter and timber frame manufacturers, with a smaller amount of softwood timber sold to merchants. Following the recession, we evolved our business with merchants and expanded our offering to meet their needs.

From there, we’ve continued to develop our relationship with the merchant sector, both buying groups and independent merchants, and grow and tailor our offering to meet evolving industry needs.

TTJ: One obvious example of this is joining the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF). Upon announcing your membership, you mentioned the need to “add value” in the long-term relationships you’re looking to build with merchants. Could you explain this in more detail?

NBR: In a nutshell, it means that we’re here to stay. If the world should change again, this wouldn’t change our strategy. We’d still be there to supply to merchants and are completely committed to developing the very best long-term timber solutions for them. Our BMF membership was an important step in helping us better nurture our relationships with merchants. In what’s set to be a busy time for timber it’s important we’re placed right at the heart of the industry. It gives us a great opportunity to better learn what merchants need from us. It’s our hope that by sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas with fellow suppliers, merchants and industry-leading figures, the entire supply chain will be better educated about the benefits of sustainable timber supply.

The BMF also runs a very good training programme. Utilising this will help us better fulfil our commitment to help the development of our own staff, which will ultimately help us offer a better service to our customers.

TTJ: What more needs to be done in terms of supporting, educating and informing the merchant sector in terms of sustainability considerations? Is knowledge at the level it needs to be when it comes to chain of custody, for example?

NBR: I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to help people understand the benefits of a sustainable timber supply. Unfortunately, at the moment when you talk about the cutting down of wood, there’s still an assumption that it must be a bad thing.

We want people to better understand the positivity of harvesting trees – they are after all, a sustainable crop. When forests are responsibly managed, they are one of the most valuable raw materials on the planet. That’s why for every tree we fell, we plant another three and operate according to a tree’s natural life cycle – our timber is the by-product of a continuous cycle of planting, growth and natural regeneration.

Of course, the assurance of a truly sustainable timber supply and achieving certification can help win contracts, but it’s about much more than that. Certifications are often the minimum requirement. At Södra, we pride ourselves on going above and beyond this. It’s much more important that we continually strive to achieve better sustainability and take the time to educate our customers about the journey of where our timber comes from so that they can make better informed decisions.

TTJ: Reliable supply is a key consideration for merchants. What possible supply issues are pertinent to the timber market at this moment in time?

NBR: Our industry is always slightly at the mercy of the weather. Warmer or wetter weather can, for instance, pose challenges. But these relatively short-term challenges can be made easier by a long-term approach. We’ve been a reliable and consistent supplier of timber to the merchant sector for many years and recognise that doing everything we possibly can to deliver what they need and when they need it is at the core of continuing this successful relationship.

This is made possible by our distribution network of three UK terminals and one Irish terminal. Södra’s acquisition of Crown Timber in 2016 was a significant landmark for Södra in the UK. It’s now provided us with valuable access across the entire supply chain.

Increased global demand also poses challenges. European demand remained steady throughout 2017, but China’s imports have increased five-fold in the last 10 years and demand from America continues to increase. It’s great news for the timber market but requires careful planning to ensure a reliable supply. This is where we’re fortunate that we own and manage our own supply of timber; it’s a distinct advantage and helps set us apart. We’re part of a fully integrated supply chain, which enables our supply to be efficient and consistent, as well as flexible according to the global market.

TTJ: What needs to be done to ensure that discussions about timber supply focus on more than a race to the bottom in terms of price?

NBR: Continued demand in the West, combined with further growth in other developing countries, means we will definitely see global consumption increase to record levels. As global demand increases, however, so will constraints on supply. While price will always be a factor, a rise in consumption set against a necessity to source timber from proven sustainable sources, means high quality, sustainable Swedish timber will always demand a fair price.

It’s therefore the job of the timber industry to better educate people of the benefits of a sustainable timber supply, while at the same time emphasising the ethical and environmental risks of sourcing timber from unsustainable and unreliable sources.

TTJ: There are signs that the UK is moving more towards timber frame/offsite construction. Some merchants fear they could be bypassed, but how can they engage more? NBR: A large proportion of merchants’ business is in the repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI) market – and that is not something which is disappearing.

Offsite construction will mainly be focused on major new build developments, but we live in a country full of ageing buildings, which will require RMI. This isn’t just limited to houses, but the entire infrastructure. When you couple this with a general increase in demand for sustainable materials, you can rest assured there will always be a place for timber merchants.

In terms of engagement, we’re always talking to merchants and getting to know what they’re looking for. We work hard to provide them with more information about us; where our timber comes from and how to look after it better. For example, we provide supporting materials about sustainable timber selection and care for merchants to educate their own staff and use with their customers.

TTJ: Södra is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. What does the business have planned to mark this occasion?

NBR: It’s obviously an important landmark so we’ll be holding a number of small events across the company in the countries in which we operate. Eighty years is a long time and testament to our sustainable, long-term approach. Our spruce also takes around 80 years to reach full maturity, and we’re replanting every day, so while it’s nice to celebrate these occasions there’s still very much a focus on the next 80 years.