French hardwood sawmill Scierie de Challans has been plying its trade in Western France for nearly 60 years.

Gilbert Chevrier founded the company in 1956 when he took over a local craft workshop in Challans in the Vendée region and began producing sawn timber for his customers.

But last year the third-generation family firm was acquired by a three-strong team – Cédric Robert (CEO), Alexandre Huvet (CFO) and Koen Wille, head of international development.

The young team is aged between 30-40 and it saw an opportunity to develop an established timber business.

Koen Wille, aged 32, told TTJ it was exciting for the clients to see young people coming into the timber trade, as the industry seemed to have an ageing workforce compared to other sectors.

"It has been going very well," said Mr Wille. "The company has been growing ever since we have launched new products." Mill sawn output is currently 60-70m3 a day/ 20,000m3 a year, with an annual turnover of €7.5-8m and up to 40 staff employed.

The mill is ranked in the top 5-10% of largest French hardwood mills and it was historically founded on the tropical hardwoods trade due to its close proximity to the ports of La Rochelle and Nantes.

"We still trade in a lot of tropical hardwoods but the volumes of tropical hardwood coming into Europe have been decreasing, with a lot going instead to the likes of China," added Mr Wille.

"So, we are re-positioning with more temperate hardwoods such as oak and ash." Currently, the business has a tropical/ temperate mix of about 50/50, with tropical species including sapele, utile and wenge, while temperate includes oak, ash, beech and sycamore.

The mill cuts both imported and domestic logs up to 2.5m diameter and also imports some further processed timber.

It can also re-saw square-edged stock and provide bespoke sawmilling services by request.

About 95% of sawn timber cut at the mill is kiln dried in 11 kilns with a combined capacity of about 1,000m3, including one "dry steamer".

Its custom workshops are equipped to produce component parts to customer specifications: including planed items, mouldings, edge-glued panels and glued laminated products, which can be produced up to 6m in length.

Its multi-ply products have been awarded with the CTB-LCA quality label for guarea, moabi, ayan, oak and sapele.

The certification is designed to guarantee exact manufacturing specifications of face lamination for use in products such as exterior joinery.

One recently launched product is crosslaminated panel worktops.

Basically, the company’s motto is – "if you can describe it, then we can make it".

UK sales

"Exports to the UK are a key area for development," said Mr Wille.

He said Scierie de Challans’ one-stop-shop service offering mixed loads of boules, beams and other products has helped pushed the development of its UK business.

"For the UK, the main products we export is oak in a variety of products – beams, boules and sleepers and interestingly, we are receiving more enquiries for engineered timber.

"The UK is a conservative market and favours solid timber but there is a shift in mentality happening towards laminated and finger-jointed wood."

"There are different trends going on in the market and it depends on how you position your products," he added.

"People are moving from mass production to customised production especially on the engineered side and that’s a trend that will persist in the years to come. People will move away from solid timber to more finished products."

Mr Wille said the thicknesses of the timber lamellas in engineered timber are decreasing – something being pushed more and more by customers.

The mill has found the market for boules reduce in recent years with the trend towards square-edged product, though the highest grade of boules (large diameter/long lengths) is still in demand.

"At the start of 2015, the French market went down but we have seen a nice pick up in the last four months leading to some pressure on sourcing and capacity. "The UK market is performing better than the French market for the time being, especially on the construction side, with a lot of sleepers and beams being sold there. In France the pick up is more in renovation work."

"We are at 100% capacity and looking for added investment in the future with new machinery as we look more downstream with more finished products