“You’ll never run a successful business on 2×4 alone” is a good summary of Richard Burbidge Ltd’s philosophy, where innovation, lean manufacturing, value adding and astute marketing have resulted in the business we see today.

2005 has been a big year for the company’s chairman, Richard Burbidge CBE, who, having celebrated 40 years at the helm, recently stepped down as chief executive.

The company is now led by Steve Underhill as chief executive, with Tim Wood as operations director and Martyn Whybrow as marketing and sales director, a team who have worked together for many years.

By focusing on his role as chairman, Richard will spend more time on acquisitions. “We continue to be in an acquisitive mood, having bought at least one business in each of the last five years,” he said. “These add new product lines that can be sold with our existing ranges. Radiator cabinets is one example and Atkinson & Kirby, a major flooring distributor in its own right, has also moved us into new areas. We are always looking for other companies that will fit.”

As its recently appointed chairman, he is also keen to devote time to TRADA. “I have always held TRADA in high esteem. It’s widely respected, impartial, independent and wants to promote the increasing specification of timber.”

Here he sees his role clearly: “It’s on the membership side, creating links for the industry with architects, specifiers and engineers,” he said. “Membership is increasing rapidly and askTRADA, our online website, was a huge financial risk that has really paid off, giving access to our massive library of technical information.”

Outside interests

TRADA is not the only outside interest. He is chairman of the Institute of Orthopaedics at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Oswestry, raising funds for a unit helping children with movement difficulties. And he recently became a governor at Shrewsbury School. Yet he still finds time for sailing, tennis, skiing, golf… “another reason for becoming chairman, when many of my friends are retired,” he joked.

Despite these interests, the family business is never far from his attention. It was founded in 1867 as a contract woodturning business, originally in Coventry, and Richard is the fourth generation of the family in the company. This tradition looks set to continue with his son Josh, who recently joined the company as a national accounts manager.

&#8220“On the environmental front, we were founder members of the WWF 95+ Group. We know it is essential to demonstrate that any timber we use is from well managed, sustainable sources”

Richard joined the business after reading for a law degree at Trinity College, Cambridge.

“My first job was running our 5,000ft2 factory with eight people and, as the DIY market grew in the 1970s, we developed products to suit. By 1980 we were turning over around £2m; this had grown to over £25m by 1990,” he explained.

The stair balustrading system which is synonymous with Richard Burbidge Ltd, virtually started by accident. “We had become involved in selling an American range of turned spindles that covered a huge spectrum of sizes and profiles. Nothing really sold apart from 2x2in section, 36in-long spindles for stairs. From that point the entire system that we have today grew up.”

The whole essence of the company changed with the housing boom in the 1980s. “We became marketeers as the DIY sector emerged and grew rapidly, developing our small, fixed length mouldings range for merchanting companies who needed added-value products,” said Richard. “This continued as consolidation took place in that market; with the growth of the national merchant chains and DIY multiples.”

Manufacturing today is much leaner. “It’s more specialised; we source products from where they’re most cost-effectively made. Fewer people are involved in manufacture than packaging, warehousing, distribution, administration, sales or marketing. The tide’s only running one way, but our UK production is – and will remain – very significant.

“Innovation is continuous across our entire range, with an in-house product development team. We also have an important customer survey to keep us in touch with what is required.

“On the environmental front, we were founder members of the WWF 95+ Group. We know it is essential to demonstrate that any timber we use is from well managed, sustainable sources.”

Richard believes timber has “overwhelming environmental credentials”, but “unfortunately we’re allowing ourselves to get bogged down with petty squabbles on certification. We need to create a virtuous circle, through conferences, e-news and other methods, that allow people to network and learn about timber”.

And TRADA, he added, can build bridges with other parties, increasing levels of wood specification.

“The change from government funding to industry partnerships will improve our focus on research. Timber frame is just one area where TRADA would like to continue co-funding programmes, so improved research creates more funding and more growth,” he said.