When beehive manufacturers contact JJ Smith for woodworking machinery advice they are often pleasantly surprised to get more than they bargained for.

This is because managing director Martin Smith not only has a sound knowledge of woodworking machinery, he has been a beekeeper for 25 years and is a past national president of the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA).

"A lot of people think a beehive is just a shed for bees but it’s not; it has to be made to furniture tolerances and you use furniture making machinery," said Mr Smith. "The big beehive manufacturers are serious woodworking facilities with a significant investment in woodworking machinery."

Family firm
JJ Smith was founded in Liverpool 90 years ago by Martin’s grandfather and his three brothers, and as a child Martin was a regular visitor to the factory.

"They used to count the stock every year and they marked every machine with chalk so they didn’t double count. I’d walk around with my father and he’d say ‘put a piece of chalk on that machine’ so I’d climb over four machines and place the chalk mark."

Martin joined the business in 1983, although there was no pressure to join the family firm.

"My father fancied being an historian but his father said ‘you’d better be an engineer’. As a consequence, he never told me to go off and do one thing or another," said Martin.

However, with an eye to joining the business at some stage, Martin chose accountancy. He attended Southampton University and trained with Ernst & Young before joining drinks company Martini.

In 1983 he moved back to Liverpool to take the role of accountant for the family business. He then moved into general management and sales, and took over from his uncle as managing director in 1995. Now, as well as being MD, Martin has responsibility for JJ Smith’s timber frame machinery.

"You don’t need a full-time MD for a business of this size, so the MD can do other things," said Martin. "The area that was relevant to me was optimising and thinking about yields. It naturally suits an accountant’s mentality, so I moved into optimising cross-cutting, from which we moved into timber frame."

The fourth generation of Smiths is now joining the company and recently Martin’s daughter became a non-executive director. The appointment is part of the long-term planning – and longevity – of the business.

"I’m not going to retire tomorrow but I do want to at some stage and you need to think in terms of succession planning, which is unusual in a family business," said Martin.

Away from work, much of Martin’s time is spent tending to his bees.

It was his wife, Jilly, who introduced him to beekeeping. "Then we had kids so she looked after the kids and I took over the bees."

Bee-keeping has become a time-consuming hobby but for Martin it’s the perfect escape from work. "You need to do something completely different from work. When you’re peering into a beehive and trying to understand what’s going on you can’t be thinking about anything else. You’re just looking at the beehive, trying to work out how to manage these bees successfully to make sure they’re healthy and they don’t swarm. It takes you out of your other existence."

Martin has about 10 colonies of bees situated in a field behind the house, shared with the Smiths’ collection of animals, which has grown over the years. When Martin and his wife bought the field 20 years ago they acquired two donkeys from a sanctuary to keep the grass down. As the donkeys have aged and lost their teeth two alpacas have joined them to take over the grass mowing.

Each hive produces around 100lb of honey a year, which Martin sells in farm shops and at country shows.

Although bee-keeping is a distraction from Martin’s day job, it’s almost a job in itself. "It’s not the sort of thing you can dabble at. You have a responsibility to look after animals in the good times and the bad, and practise good husbandry, whether that’s bee husbandry, alpaca or donkey husbandry," said Martin.

Bee-keeping roles
And he’s taken his share of responsibility in the bee-keeping world too, first as chairman and then president of the BBKA. He is now a trustee of the Lancashire branch and president of Bee Diseases Insurance Ltd, an insurance company for bee-keepers, and is still called on for media interviews, which have become more frequent in recent years with the growing awareness of the declining bee population. When he was in London last year to exhibit at Ecobuild, Martin did an interview on BBC Breakfast before the show’s opening at 10am.

Martin welcomes the increased media interest and the resultant improvement in the public’s understanding and appreciation of bees.

"The change in public perception in the last four to five years is incredible, and it’s down to continuous publicity. Ten years ago someone would phone up and say ‘I have bees in my garden; do I put petrol on them or paraffin to kill them?’ Nowadays they’ll say ‘I know they’re endangered; are they going to be a problem because I want to leave them alone’."

Martin also takes great pleasure in sharing his knowledge by teaching novice bee-keepers.

"It’s important to bring on the next generation of bee-keepers. I like to pass on my enthusiasm to new people. Once I stop being enthusiastic I’ll stop teaching, but for the moment I’ll carry on," he said.

He has the same philosophy about work.

"If you don’t enjoy your job you should find something else to do because it will come across and you’ll do your job badly. "Some people are counting down the days until they retire, even though it might be 15 years away. If you feel like that you should change your job."

You have to get a buzz out of work, said Martin, and it’s clear that he does.

"Selling a machine and feeling you’ve done a good job and the guy’s got the right kit at the right price and comes back to you next time and is prepared to recommend you, you think I’ve done OK there."