CHANGE, change, change. After a few sleepless nights I made a decision. When the lockdown came, I decided to keep the sawmill open. My decision was based largely on seasonality as, at this time of the year, so many of my customers are farmers from the local community requiring lambing pens, sheep and livestock hurdles and pheasant pens. The animals, I supposed, were innocent victims in all this.

The first week was somewhat strange as suppliers with whom I’d dealt for years anticipated Armageddon and aggressively demanded new payment terms. This didn’t happen once but several times, with some demanding money up front. Suppliers of diesel, haulage, chemicals, and spares of varied kinds all joined the frenzy and I struggled to keep a professional head on some occasions. After a few days, I decided to play them at their own game and left messages thanking them for their support over all of these years but saying I would be closing my account and going elsewhere. Grovelling apologies then flooded in from said suppliers and by the following week normal service had resumed.

There’s no question the lockdown has brought a sudden change in the type of orders we’re receiving. The agricultural demand is there, as I’ve already intimated, but gone are the regular big orders from landscape gardeners and fencers who I assume have been furloughed. So, one would think that demand would be low and the mill quiet? Not a bit of it! As the furlough cash has begun to trickle in, everyone seems to be building. People are busy with that project they never had time to do and the phone is ringing constantly.

Surely that’s a good thing, you may say, but we’re only a small mill and can quite easily get overwhelmed. However, with a bit of reorganisation we’ve managed to smoothly change cutting patterns to accommodate the current trend. Many of these orders are relatively small and bespoke which would be a huge problem for a high-production mill, but for once in my life my practical approach has worked to my advantage.

Over the years, like many mills, I struggled to put together a reliable team of workers and, generally speaking, the greater the number, the greater the problems. With five or six on the team someone would invariably throw a sickie or come in hungover. Even when they all came in, if you gave them a different task or changed procedures this seemed to be an insurmountable barrier and much time was required to stop and discuss the situation with fellow workers. Basically, it provided those less inclined to work with the opportunity to coast and do very little, as huge philosophical debates were needed on these minor changes (while production fell off a cliff). The big sawmills – with their Henry Ford attitude of everything moving constantly in one direction – overcame this problem and have flourished, but they supply only one aspect of the market.

This is where my business comes in. There is still plenty of room for the small sawmill to cut the small orders, provided you can solve the production conundrum. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it, but I think I’ve gone a long way towards managing it. At times we get an order for a single piece of wood, yet the next order can be for thousands. However, with the experience I’ve gained over the years in working and maintaining the machinery and organising the workforce, we can be very flexible without too much aggro.

For instance, a builder recently placed an order for some fencing and landscaping material, plus an order for a single larch beam at 16’ x 10” x 5”. No high-volume mill could cater for such an order and a small mill would grind to a halt cutting a single item, yet for me, because I operate the main saw, I can slot these one-offs in while cutting a batch order without any time loss or change in personnel.

Imagine the scenario in some businesses, where everything would grind to a halt. You’d then have to explain what you were going to do. By the time this had been discussed between several people you’ve lost a good deal of time. With the way we’re set up today, jobs which once took 20 minutes now take 20 seconds. Although we can’t match the speed and volume of a high-production mill, we can produce small orders efficiently and quickly.

Consider that a few years ago some mills stopped production altogether and began to import ready-sawn wood from Latvia. A bespoke order could take up to five months to produce, ship and deliver. Sometimes a customer can call and, if I’m cutting a suitable batch of round wood, I can change the size I’m cutting to his requirements while he waits. Job done, order crossed off list and another happy customer!

The starkest example of what I’m describing occurred recently. It only came to light because the paperwork was accidentally sent to me. A local school had required timber for a playground development and the order was put out to tender. It was in excess of £32,000 and so hardly insubstantial. The tender was won by a company in the South. I noticed in the order the cost of the timber was £10,000. Unknown to me at the time, the order had already been subcontracted several times and gone through several architects, consultants, and surveyors. The job had to be done in the school holidays and the company that had won the tender had failed to meet this window. After several unsuccessful attempts to secure supply, I was approached by a local landscaper. I supplied and cut the timber to requirements for £800 and the landscaper did the job for £1,200. Need I say more?

And so, to the present. The supply of timber on the ground is good and I’ve managed to gain the help in the mill of a couple of guys who are usually contract cutters. We’ve definitely cranked things up and, although the workforce is finding cutting the different sizes quite stressful, I’m enjoying it. If I was waiting for wood from abroad or from another mill or I was totally reliant on staff it would probably be a nightmare, but because I’m in control and driving the main saw, the variation of work is interesting and fun. Being able to adapt to this ever-changing situation has been a huge bonus and I’m beginning to wonder whether this is the start of a period of common sense.

From my perspective, small, local businesses are thriving. The butchers and farm shops are very busy and even the local milkman is taking on extra staff. Maybe we’re entering a golden era for small business? Big businesses are quite happy to stamp their authority on the small guys, as I discovered at the start of this crisis. Yet it’s the little guys who have the ability to change and adapt more easily. As I keep telling people (from two metres away), we’re a bit like worms. Food goes in one end and comes out the other. What we put in determines what comes out and it’s the same for business. Being in good health is what really matters in all aspects of life.

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