Tracing its routes back to 1882, Alsford Timber has come a long way since its humble origins. BMN's Nichola Farrugia visited the merchant to find out how it is committed to continuous development.

There’s no doubt that the timber industry has been squeezed over recent years. However, the fact that Alsford Timber, which has 18 branches across the South East, has continued to improve, evolve and retain a focus on quality during a long, painful recession is testament to the strength of the 133-year-old business.

“After riding the storm of the economic downturn, we realised that if we were going to continue to prosper, we needed to emerge with a clear strategy that involved investing in our people, operations and routes to market,” acknowledged Neil Fuller, managing director of Alsford Timber. “So, against market trends, we began a three-year plan for aggressive growth.”

As part of its strategy, Alsford Timber reviewed its procedures and introduced a people plan, which resulted in changing its management team at all of its branches.

“Due to the fluidity in the market, we have changed around 20% of our staff over the past 24 months,” said Mr Fuller. “The whole process was done honourably with some people stepping down or moving sideways into other roles. Since making the changes, we have now got an experienced and knowledgeable team of people in place who are running our branches and the business at our head office.”

New mill investment

To enable Alsford Timber to further penetrate the supply chain, and give greater control over the quality and range of its products, the company has carried out a number of developments over the past 12 months. This has included building a new production mill at its site in Erith in 2014.

Following a nine-month project, the £1m investment in new machinery has enabled the company to bring back in-house the production of its Premier, Standard and Contract Grade PAR and moulding ranges for its branch and contracts businesses.

“This investment came on the back of a significant increase in softwood timber and moulding sales since we re-launched the category in 2013,” explained Mr Fuller. “It has been the main contributory factor in our sales growth of 20% year-on-year.”

To cater for the increase in demand for its core range of products, the company also plans to make further improvements to its Erith site by building a bigger unit to house its raw and finish material. Mr Fuller explained: “Developments at our head office are ongoing, and we will be looking to make significant changes to it over the coming months to enable us to create more space to store our products.”

Other developments that have also recently taken place at the company’s head office have included the opening of The Alsford Timber Training Academy building. Working closely with BM TRADA, Alsford Timber has developed a bespoke training programme for all of its employees to improve their knowledge and add value to the overall business. Remaining a work-in-progress, the course programme will continue to be updated to include new products and areas of future change.

In addition to opening the Academy, the company will also be spending £1.5m in making upgrades to its commercial fleet over the next five years. Eleven new vehicles have already been delivered this year, ranging from 12 tonne to 26 tonne GVW trucks.

The 12 tonne trucks mark a significant increase in capacity from the traditional 7.5 tonne vehicle currently being used, reflecting the growth of market share that is being achieved by many of Alsford Timber’s branches.

“Investing in new vehicles is a big expenditure for the company, but where the business has grown in recent years, we are now having to significantly increase the carrying capacity of our core fleet,” said Mr Fuller.

The DAF Trucks have been combined with Fassi lorry loader cranes, which according to Mr Fuller, provide exceptional safety features to ensure a safer environment for Alsford Timber’s staff. He said: “All of the new vehicles have been carefully inspected and specified by our logistics team to ensure they meet and exceed the requirements set by FORS, CLOCS and Cross Rail. Vehicles are fitted with extra mirrors, proximity sensors, CCTV, audible alarms and signage to help improve the safety of other road users.”

As Alsford Timber is focused on providing the safest, yet most efficient service possible, all of the company’s driving staff are subject to extra training, which they are assessed on, on a regular basis. Mr Fuller explained: “We are committed to creating a transport and logistics service which will be unrivalled in our sector of operations. To this end, we have dedicated a significant amount of time and effort in driver training to ensure the professionalism of our staff matches the quality of our vehicles.”

An online resource

In order to make online browsing and ordering even easier for its customers, Alsford Timber has enhanced its website so that it is compatible with all smartphone and tablet devices.

Aimed predominately at a retail audience, the company will soon be launching a trade portal for its trade customers, which will enable them to place orders, receive discounts, make payments and retrieve invoices directly through the website.

“Websites are the shop window to any company, so we wanted to ensure that our site reflects the quality products and services we offer,” said Mr Fuller. “We have also worked hard to make sure that it is simple to navigate for customers and that it provides them with a one-stop-shop for all of their needs.”

Looking to the future, Alsford Timber plans to consolidate what it has put in place over the past 12 months to ensure that it continues to live up to its strapline of being: ‘The Timber Experts’.

Mr Fuller concluded: “We have put a lot of things in place over the past couple of years and are now reaping the rewards from it. We are committed to reinvestment and are confident that we will continue to grow and maintain our position as the best timber merchant in the South East.”

This article first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Builders' Merchants News.