He’s a qualified teacher, a keyboard player in rock and jazz bands, a sailor and a fixerupper of lawnmowers, but in timber industry circles, Richard Bagnall is probably better known as the managing director of Bristolbased importer and distributor Robbins Timber.

Richard was born in Yorkshire, where his father, Derek, was serving in the Army and stationed at Harrogate.

“He loved the Army, it was his life. He’s 90 now and still talks about it,” said Richard, adding that his father’s disciplined and focused approach to life had made him a real role model.

Family life came first, however, and when Richard was one year old, the Bagnalls moved to Sussex and Derek joined a furniture company as a transport manager. They stayed in Sussex for seven years before moving to Bristol, areas around which Richard has lived ever since.

School was followed by a couple of years working for himself, mending cars and doing “any wheeling and dealing” he could in order to pay his way through university. He then went on to Bristol University, where he qualified as a teacher.

“If I’m honest, I didn’t know what to do and really only went to university because of the pressure to get a respectable qualification,” said Richard.

He taught design technology, maths and motor engineering to GCSE and A-Level students in a co-ed state comprehensive and although he enjoyed it, the pull of the business world and the ability to control his own destiny that he’d experienced in his gap years – and even during his school years – proved too tempting.

“I really enjoyed teaching and got good results with the kids, but fundamentally I had always had an interest in business. Even when I was at school I was selling cigarettes and books – anything I could. I wasn’t particularly money-motivated, I just enjoyed the process.

“I think the biggest driver was the desire to be in control of my own destiny. Even when I was teaching I had a sideline business repairing lawnmowers and garden machinery and supplying various bits and pieces. I was on a two-year fixed term contract with the school and when that came to an end it was the catalyst to decide whether I wanted another teaching job or to go into business full time.”

He decided on the latter and set up a business repairing and selling garden machinery and carrying out contract maintenance work for clients such as local councils.

By this time Richard was married to his first wife, Hilary, whose father, Brian Robbins, was the owner of Robbins Timber Ltd, as it was then known. But the family connection didn’t automatically lead to a future in the timber industry.

“By 1985 I was doing quite a lot of sailing and there was a plan to sell the garden machinery business and buy a boat repair and engineering business down on the south Devon coast. The logic was that I could combine the practical ability I have with my love of business and boats.”

However, fate stepped in when Brian Robbins’ health deteriorated to the point where the Robbins company was in danger of collapse. The family asked Richard to come into the business to put “a steady hand on the tiller for a year” while they decided on the best course of action.

“And two things happened,” said Richard. “One, they didn’t do anything because I was there sorting it out and, two, I loved it. I had an affinity with it because it was a practical product, I had taught design technology, so I knew about wood, and I knew about business.”

He turned the company around, making a profit in the first year. He could see that the best way forward was to expand the business and bought Brian out a couple of years later so he could pursue that course of action. “Expansion was one of the keys to success because the trade was changing big time,” said Richard. “We had to expand to survive.”

“The big DIY sheds were only just starting to come on the scene. When I started customers would queue out the door on a Saturday to buy their bits of skirting. That changed as the trade itself changed. The nationals, such as Jewson and Travis, were buying high-profile sites and turning them into builders merchants, while the other sites were being sold for development.

“The trade was shifting away from traditional timber merchants and more towards builders merchants and DIY stores. “When I started in the industry there were 26 significant timber merchants in Bristol and now there are only two independents, of which we are the biggest, and Clarks Wood, which is now part of the Premier Forest Group, and a branch of Lathams in Yate. It has completely changed.”

Robbins’s first acquisition was in 1990 with the purchase of Timber Supplies in the Bristol suburb of Fishponds. Timber Supplies was a merchant serving local tradesmen and retail and its acquisition marked the first involvement of Gordon Lamb in the Robbins business. Gordon is now sales director and a minority shareholder in the company.

As well as increasing the size of the operation, the acquisition brought significant logistical benefits. Robbins had originally been located at Bristol docks, but had relocated to a smaller and “frankly totally inappropriate” site in a residential area of Bedminster in Bristol in the late 1970s. “The Timber Supplies site was bigger and had a yard where we could forklift materials off the lorries. That was a move up. We kept Bedminster as an outlet, but were able to use the Fishponds site for handling our bulk imports, which helped with our costs.”

Further acquisitions followed: softwood importer Wickham & Norris and its sister hardwood company Jonathan Hill were acquired in 1993, while general timber and sheet material merchant SJ Hannam came into the fold in 2000.

At this point the company consolidated onto one site – its current location on the Ashton Vale Trading Estate, just outside Bristol city centre (and handily near a Ginsters Cornish pasty factory). The site consists of 50,000ft2 of covered space and 50,000ft2 of yard space.

Meanwhile, Timber Supplies, by now called Robbins Timber (Fishponds) Ltd, was sold on. “It was general trade rather than specialist trade and didn’t really fit into our profile anymore,” said Richard. “It was an ideal operation for an owner/manager.”

In the early days of running a small company Richard had to be something of a Jack-of-all-trades, willing to muck in outside in the yard. He obtained his HGV and sideloader licence and still occasionally has use for them today. His primary function, however, was to put a cohesive management in place and to establish sales function and direction.

“All this was achieved by friendly and non-confrontational engagement with staff,” said Richard.

Robbins Timber now turns over around £7m per year and business is orientated towards high service levels and adding value via machining. The view among the directors – who now include Richard’s son, Ben – is that there may be another £1.5-2m worth of growth in turnover to come, but beyond that the company would lose its competitive advantage.

“If we get too big we’ll lose the flexibility that appeals to our customer base,” said Richard. “We’re big enough to buy competitively, but small enough that if there is a problem it doesn’t have to go through a regional director who then has to go to the board. We can generally sort things out in a telephone call.”

Richard has always been keen to develop the company’s niche markets. His affinity with sailing – and the fact that the original company was based in Bristol docks – has made marine timbers an easy fit. “When you are selling marine timber it does make quite a difference if you know what a boat looks like!”

The company also stocks material for specialist industries. As an example, it carries jelutong for the pattern-making trade. “Very few companies carry that and we have to buy probably over a year’s stock in one go. We write in the finance cost and the fact that it is going to take us a year to sell it and we price it accordingly.”

As mentioned, machining is another focus. “As both production and housebuilding have become more deskilled we have been able to provide solutions for companies by adding more processes to the materials they are buying from us. And to do that we have kept up with machining technology.”

Adapting to changing market demands has also been key for Richard.

“No business can stand still and if I look at customers we serve now compared to even five years ago, there are significant changes. We stock modified timbers and engineered products that we didn’t five years ago.

“We have to be mindful of the fact that the UK market is notoriously slow to accept new products – think of finger-jointed material, for example – but we have to move forward all the time. And I think the acceptance of new products is changing, which is probably due to general globalisation.

“When I joined the trade there was no need to know what was going on halfway around the world because there was a very structured supply chain. Now we deal anywhere in the world or through importers as it suits us.” Looking ahead, Richard plans to step back and hand more of the management to Ben. He says that contrary to his wife Jill’s belief, he “genuinely won’t have a problem walking away from the business”, but he admits he had anticipated already being on a four-day week by this time and that hasn’t happened. Ben, the eldest of Richard and Jill’s three children, had always been keen to join the business, but just as Richard forged his own path in the early days of his career, so did Ben. He worked in commercial property surveying, including two years in Paris, before joining Robbins Timber in 2013.

Since then he has worked in the mill, the hardwood, softwood and sheet materials sheds and in customer services, gaining a thorough understanding of the Robbins business and of the wider timber trade. He now oversees operations and, as part of a five-year plan, is gradually buying shares in the trading company and, ultimately, will gain majority control.

Then Richard will be free to spend more time indulging in his favourite pastimes of sailing and skiing. In the meantime, however, he remains highly motivated.

“I love the job,” he said. “I have a number of friends who are counting down the days until they retire so I know I am blessed in that respect.”

He shares the usual gripes about dealing with the red tape trading in timber attracts, but the appeal of working with a natural, renewable material mitigates against that. “The EU Timber Regulation isn’t perfect and it’s bureaucratic, but if I’m honest I am almost happy to deal with the paperwork because I approve of the principle of it and think it is worthy of support.”

He has also been a stalwart supporter of trade industry bodies such as the Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and the Timber Trades’ Benevolent Society (TTBS).

“I believe in what the TTF does and also feel that as a timber merchant we benefit from them,” he said, adding that, in the past, he has served as chairman of the Western Timber Association, TTF director and member of the TTF hardwood division.

He has been a member of the TTBS South West Region Committee for “longer than I can remember” and past-chairman several times, a National Board of Management member for around 20 years, National President from 2007-2008 and has been a Trustee since 2013.

Both sailing and music are keenly pursued in his spare time.

“We have two small boats in Salcombe – a sailing dinghy and a sports boat that can be used for water skiing and fishing and so on. My favourite activity is to get up early with the dog and just potter out amongst the moorings looking at the boats.”

For “proper sailing” holidays, the Bagnall family charter boats all over the world, with the next trip being the Azores.

“I find being on the water therapeutic. And it’s active – I can’t stand lying on a beach.” Richard started to learn the piano when he was eight and now plays keyboards in a rock band and a jazz band. He is also a “locum” church organist, playing at Sunday services, weddings, funerals and so on.

The rock band has been together for more than 10 years and performs up to 10 gigs a year, playing “classic floor fillers” for events, but these days Richard is more keen on the laid back jazz.

“We’re never going to be the jazz band at functions, but we’ll be the background music or the support act,” he said.

Either way, Richard will have plenty to occupy himself when he finally decides to hand over the reins.