There is a slight air of apology among people who work for Södra Timber that their head office in Växjö, Sweden is made of concrete and steel. However, no-one could say it is not an impressive sight. Built in the 1960s, it is a curved multi-storey construction styled on the EU building in Brussels and set in front of a lake.

What is more Södra is now making up for the lack of its own timber frame residence with a concerted push into the construction market based on its newly developed timber frame building systems.

Heading the initiative is Södra Timber’s managing director Torbjörn Björstrand. He is a relative newcomer to the timber industry, having arrived from a car accessories manufacturing background, and he is using that experience to make the company re-think its operations.

Historically, said Mr Björstrand, the sawmilling tradition was to cut a tree down, saw it up and sell it. Comparing that to the automotive industry, he said: “In car manufacturing they do not start with a piece of steel but with a design and we have to try and copy a little bit of that and become more design focused.”

“The [automotive] industry undertakes a lot of research and development and its sales and marketing departments are more advanced. So, the biggest change for us must be to recognise that a sawmill isn’t just a sawmill. We are trying to look at it as a production unit and when, like us, you have a number of sawmills, you have a large production source which can be represented by one sales and marketing operation.”

One step forward has been the creation of Advantage Timber – the pooling of a number of initiatives designed to create benefits for Södra’s customers. They include a streamlined sales organisation, increased use of IT and specialised services from each of its six sawmills around southern Sweden. Last year those sawmills produced 852,000m3, representing 15% of total production in Södra’s area of operation and 5% of total production in Sweden.

The new joint sales and marketing organisation for the sawmills has seen the sales force split into five regions – Scandinavia; Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands; Central Europe; the US and Japan; the rest of the world.

As another feature of its marketing campaign, Södra has also harmonised its shipping marks to build brand awareness.

All these moves are focused firmly on the construction industry. Mr Björstrand explained: “We have to accept that the logs and forest are different in different parts of the world and in different parts of Sweden. We are targeting the building and construction industry because the timber in southern Sweden is suited to it.”

Södra’s sales and marketing director Uno Andersson said: “We have the resources and the power in our forestry operations and our sawmills. The key is to find a product range to suit the market and see if we can scale up the sawmills to have a more competitive cost and find a way in the forestry operations to get the best possible product range to the market.

“We have brought all the sawmills together and made them more streamlined and able to deliver customer requirements.”

Prime target

The UK is a primary target for Södra which was quick to latch on to the surge of activity in the timber frame housing market. It is currently seeking a UK partner to manufacture and distribute its systems, patented by Södra Building Systems AB, which have unique sound insulation properties.

The systems are one of the results of a decision to invest a massive £7m into research and development, implemented 10 years ago.

Södra marketing analyst Göran Oskarsson explained: “Initially the company did not know what to spend the money on. Then the Swedish Board of Housing, Building and Planning helped us out when it decided to change building legislation.

“Previously we were not allowed to build more than two storeys in timber frame because of fire regulations, but in January 1994 they said timber frame could be used for high-rise.”

Södra had already been working with the Department of Structural Engineering at the Lund Institute of Technology to develop a high-rise system and the first five-storey house was built in 1995 in collaboration with Sweden’s largest construction com-pany, Skanska.

There are now three high-rise apartment buildings on the development at Wälludden, Växjö, the first of its type in Scandinavia, and their construction led Södra to step up its perfection of the system with the creation of Södra Building Systems AB at the beginning of 2001. In the first year of its operation sales amounted to SKr8m and were focused on the Swedish market.

Mr Oskarsson said: “The Wälludden experience told us that the key problem was achieving sound insulation in the floor construction. We had to build floors half a metre thick and it was too expensive, so we began to investigate how we could improve sound insulation in a slim construction. It took us five years, but we have the answer now.”

Floor structure

The result is SödraSemi, a floor structure which divides offices and flats. “Now we can compete with concrete and steel,” said Mr Oskarsson. “There is a high degree of fabrication in our systems, giving fast erection on site – and it is environmentally friendly. We are currently looking at a new wall product which also has good sound insulation properties and is built in one frame.”

SödraSemi, a patented factory-made timber decking, concentrates on three key factors – sound insulation, a high degree of prefabrication and cost effectiveness. It consists of a facing sheet – moisture-resistant chipboard or structural plywood – and features Södra’s unique sinus slotted joists, with the intervening spaces filled with insulation. The units are finished on site with distance pieces, secondary spaced boarding and double plasterboard sheets.

The company has also developed SödraSinus – studs for wall components. Each stud has a specially designed slot which provides excellent sound reduction characteristics. The biggest timber building in Sweden – a department building for Växjö University – will contain 3,200m2 of SödraSemi floor elements.

All the systems are flexible and specifically designed for individual projects and Södra’s final piece in the jigsaw will be a partner in the UK where, Mr Björstrand said, the goal is to increase timber frame construction through the products.

The company is also working on a manual for timber frame buildings which will be a handbook for architects and designers.

Södra ownership

Södra is owned by 34,000 forest owners, mainly in southern Sweden, has net sales of SKr10.5bn and employs 3,100 people.

The company is a strong champion of the wood. for good campaign and supports the Pan European Forest Certification Council scheme. Mr Björstrand said: “We feel it is very important that we act according to environmental rules. We pay our suppliers extra if they provide PEFC timber.

“There are a lot of sawmills in Sweden but the raw material is limited to some extent as the sawmills need raw material every single day while the forest owner looks to his forest as a 70-year investment so he doesn’t have to cut every day. There is a struggle for a good stream of raw material for the sawmills.”

Material costs in the timber industry are very high, representing some 70% which, said Mr Björstrand, is very different to other manufacturing areas where it runs at 30-40%. “That is one of the reasons why this industry needs to use the raw material in the best way and why we need to increase our efforts in sales and marketing.

“I am convinced we will see more standardised products in Europe and that will give us a better opportunity to use our big scale production system to the best advantage.”

Consolidation within the market

Södra is consolidating its position in the market with the acquisition of AB Geijerträ – a group made up of the sawmill group Geijer Timber AB with four sawmills and planing operations, and the interior wood group, Gapro AB.

This follows its acquisition of shares in sawmilling company Jabo Träprodukter AB which, it said, would increase its potential to participate in the development of the sawn timber sector. Södra owns 40% of Jabo and has the opportunity to buy a further 20%.

Talking about the acquisition of Geijer, Mr Björstrand said: “Our customers in the UK, for example, need large and solid suppliers which can be developed into partnerships.”

The purchase fits snugly with Södra Timber’s aim of becoming more market oriented and Mr Björstrand said opportunities for extended customer services and larger delivery undertakings would be improved.

“In addition, the sawmill operation will benefit from the additional further processing operation in Gapro which has also developed a successful concept for the DIY market,” he added.