‘Mr Birch’ Notches 60 Years Of Trading30 March 2018
Derek Fletcher has seen more than most people in the UK timber trade. Celebrating 60 years in the industry this year he remains irrepressible and was recently honoured in Latvia for his long association with the birch plywood industy. Stephen Powney reports
Banks of photos spanning decades line the walls at the offices of UK importer and distributor DHH Timber. From the images of industry dinners, foreign trade visits and ships, it’s clear that one person featuring in them has been in the timber trade a long time.
In January Derek Fletcher, joint owner of DHH Timber and Decor Solutions, has been in the trade for 60 years.
He has been nicknamed “Mr Birch” (his LinkedIn job description) for his long association with the birch plywood trade and the fact DHH is the UK’s largest stockist of birch ply. We caught up with him after he was recently honoured by Latvijas Finieris with a 25-year recognition award presented to him at the Latvian National Opera House in Riga.
As anyone who has met Mr Fletcher will attest, he is passionate about the timber products trade, a storyteller and likes to express his views frankly. During our conversation we cover the art of selling, Brexit, training and skills and the economy. But first we need to roll back the clock and see the “different world”, as he puts it, of the timber trade when he started out.
He was introduced to the trade with a role at teak and hardwood importer Richard H Keeping, though earlier at aged just 10 he sold firewood from a barrow (steamed beech off-cuts from a company that made ladies' shoe heels).
There were no calculators then – a hand cranked Brunsveger machine was used for costings. After six months Bamberger’s bought the company and Mr Fletcher decided to move on. In 1963 he became a junior salesman for Denny Mott and Dixon.
In his first year he opened up an incredible 378 new accounts with no leads and became a top softwoods and plywood sales rep.
He earned the nickname Aladdin as he sold millions of cubic feet of teak to the lighting industry to make standard table lamps. Many people in the office also found it amusing that he sold teak items to the London Rubber Company for condom testing!
Around this time he says he also introduced Potton Timber to timber frame production and sold thousands of packs of CLS, as well as his first packs of birch plywood. This is where his affinity and devotion to birch plywood began.
Denny’s relocated to Kent, trading as Mallison-Denny, and was then taken over by Brooke Bond and Unilever, at which point he was promoted to sales director. He remembers the company owning a fleet of elephants in Thailand for moving wood.
He then moved on to William T Eden and then Saracen Timber where he grew the turnover from £3 to £10m in just over two years.
However, he became disenchanted and formed MDM (Malcolm, Derek and Mickey), before moving on again and establishing DHH Timber with joint owner David Francis.
For the past 25 years they have grown the business to offer what is regarded as the largest and most comprehensive stock range of birch plywood in the UK with a variety of formats and thicknesses held ex-stock, as well as marine and Douglas fir plywood and Medite MDF and SmartPly OSB products.
While accepting there have been improvements in some trade practices over the years, Mr Fletcher laments the loss of a sense of integrity. “It was a different world in the old days. People used to take an order for a few million pounds without a purchase order – it was built on trust. Today, you wouldn’t dream of taking an order without a PO.
“But now there are a lot of sales for short-term gains, which is counterproductive. It shouldn’t just be having to sell things but also about promoting the product, making a profit, a good service and telling the tale about the timber trade. People say to customers ‘I can do it cheaper’ but if everyone in the timber trade sold at the correct price I think we would all make more money.” One of the major changes since 1958 is the advent of email, internet and social media.
Mr Fletcher remembers some years ago disagreeing with a Plywood Club of London meeting speaker who had predicted the rise of the internet and social media in business, but he has since revised his opinion after seeing the impacts they can have. For example, DHH is followed by many architects on Twitter.
But sales staff, he says, still need to use intelligence to get the most out of contacts made online.
“You need to talk to those people and find out who they are, what they’re doing, what projects they are involved with and what they are looking to buy. A lot of people in the timber trade do not know how to ask those questions.”
Training is something he and DHH value highly and he highlights the need for more young people in the trade. He remembers the time when companies across the trade would spend extensive time with new recruits before they conducted sales calls.
“We did not have to tell new sales people what to do then because they were trained first and learnt all about the products.”
Mr Fletcher attended the first TRADA training course with Jimmy Latham of James Latham, during which he was invited to attend his first Plywood Club of London (PCL) dinner at the Barbican 50 years ago. He has remained an active member of the PCL and the UK’s Timber Trade Federation.
As for the current market outlook, Mr Fletcher expects the economy to falter a bit over coming months but he remains generally upbeat.
“I think a lot of big construction projects are going to end in April and many new big projects are not starting,” he said. “However, there will be more offsite construction housing – that is the big thing for housing – and timber frame housing will become more widely used.”
His only concern is that the housing market may be getting overheated. He also believes that birch plywood can get bigger in the market. “I can also see OSB volumes growing and Douglas fir plywood has really taken off; architects keep specifying it.”
Mr Fletcher is very much in the pro- Brexit camp and he is positive about UK prospects outside the EU.
“I do not think there will be anything to worry about because I think everything will be cheaper. If you look at some cars [coming into the UK] they are made in India and there will be fewer duties on things like sugar cane from the West Indies.
“I do not think there will be tariffs on timber. I think the EU is more worried about it than we are. I do not think it will be too bumpy in the meantime, but there is too much being said about the subject.” Prices are on the rise, he says, but wonders whether global demand is as strong as analysts suggest.
Mr Fletcher is very proud of DHH’s countrywide distribution operation “from Land’s End to John O’Groats”, with products imported to the Essex ports of Creeksea and Tilbury. Export business has seen birch ply shipped for a velodrome project in Jakarta and 17 containers for an exhibition in Dubai.
DHH plywood was used in the London 2012 Olympic Games construction project, while King’s Cross Station also features its birch ply. The walls and ceiling of the Colyer- Fergusson Hall at the University of Kent – a previous Wood Awards winner – are lined with Douglas fir plywood supplied by sister company Decor Solutions.
Today DHH and Decor Solutions, which focuses on melamine, veneered and phenolic plywood and other decorative wood based panels, are still evolving family businesses. Sons and daughters from both the Fletcher and Francis families are in key positions and are taking the company forward, assisted by fellow directors and sales and operational staff across both organisations.
Not wanting to stand still, DHH is adding poplar plywood and a range of coloured wood engineered fibre board to its stock portfolio in 2018.
Mr Fletcher still "enjoys the trade thoroughly" and intends to remain actively involved with the business, currently working three days a week.