by Gavin Adkins, Managing Director of Tilhill – Taken from The Leader Magazine 2020
October 7th 2019 is a day that I will always remember well. This was the day that I replaced George McRobbie as Managing Director of Tilhill Forestry Ltd. George, after more than 40 years in the industry, had decided that it was time to gift himself a little more time to enjoy his fishing, and who could blame him?
My first task after taking the helm was to visit the operations, to meet the staff and get a real sense of the varied nature of our service offering. I spent much of the first six months travelling to our various sites and offices to see our managers work at first hand on the ground. My travels have taken me from new woodland creation projects in southern England to peatland restoration projects in northern Scotland, from harvesting activities in Cornwall to motorway landscaping contracts in Kent, to Ash clearance sites in Wales. The variety of service offered is impressively wide but the desire for quality remains absolute.
I have also been pleased to contribute to the management development programme for our managers, joining some of our graduates at their opening session of the ‘Unlocking Potential’ programme and judging the ‘Dragon’s Den’ pitches of an earlier cohort completing their journey. These represent future leader potential within our company and the future is bright. I was pleased to see the benefits of this investment in our people gaining recognition at the Confor Awards Dinner in February, with Tilhill colleagues shortlisted in two of the three award categories and Andrew MacQueen, one of our forest managers in South West Scotland, winning the Future Forestry Leader Award.
I appear to have found myself taking on this industry-leading role at an exciting yet, at the same time, one of the most challenging times that the business has ever seen. The desire to plant trees and create new woodlands was everywhere, with politicians falling over themselves to outdo each other with new planting targets. We even had household names and high street shops offering to plant trees to mitigate climate change if people continued to spend money with them.
Carbon and ecosystem services are the emerging metrics that we are becoming used to, in conjunction with the more traditional financial returns used to value forests. I was privileged to be in the audience as Sir David Attenborough received a lifetime award from the Landscape Institute. In his acceptance speech he spoke of the journey that conservation organisations had been on, from attempting to save rare species, to a realisation that in order to save species we needed to protect and increase their ecosystems, including our own woodlands at home.
The social and political will for woodland creation is undoubtedly on a high. However, will the approvals process be tweaked to meet these encouraging aspirations, I wonder? The experience so far is positive, with woodland creation targets being met in Scotland and an increasing number of new projects initiated in England. The jury is still out in Wales having planted only 80 hectares in 2019/20, the lowest number for a decade.
Phytosanitary felling in European markets, following significant windblow events and subsequent Bark Beetle infestation, saturated the UK market with imported sawn timber reducing the competitiveness and demand for UK sawn timber. It was a timely reminder that the UK is the second largest net importer of timber products globally.
Adding to this challenge, in April, the lockdown due to Covid-19 saw UK sawmill demand collapse almost overnight resulting in mills shutting their doors and the staff furloughed. However, a degree of demand remained from biomass power customers and some mills for sawn timber for pallets. A harvesting team, much reduced by furlough, performed fantastically in maintaining supplies to these essential operations.
During this time, the country was encouraged to work from home if possible and to maintain social distancing. We all but closed our offices with a vast number of our staff working from home. We all became familiar with new ways of working, utilising video conferencing and ensuring our usual face-to-face support networks were maintained ‘virtually’. Most forest management activities in the woods are an exercise in social distancing as standard. Consequently, our ground preparation and planting work carried on apace, all the time ensuring that we adhered to government guidelines. Indeed, with a number of other companies standing contractors down, we were able to add to our available resource.
The addition of Maelor Forest Nurseries as a sister company within the group last year also proved to be beneficial. Maelor had lifted their stock of trees for despatch and placed them in cold store before lock down occurred. As a result, unlike other nurseries, Maelor continued to despatch trees throughout the period facilitating our ongoing planting ambitions.
What have I learned then from my first few months in charge? As the leading company in our industry we have a pivotal role in shaping the UK’s green spaces at an exciting time of political and social support for environmental enhancement. It will not always be easy. Flexibility and adaptability to change will be an important attribute. But most importantly of all, I have learned that at Tilhill we have outstanding, professional, resilient, and resourceful staff, dedicated to providing a high quality service to our clients and customers no matter what adversity is set before them. I am both proud and privileged to be able to lead them and I thank George McRobbie for building such an enviable team to hand on to me, his successor.
Read more from The Leader 2020:Tilhill’s Annual Magazine: