David Sulman joined the timber trade in 1979 as a technical trainee for Mallinson-Denny and finished up as deputy chief executive of Confor. Along the way, he became one of the most well-known figures in the timber trade, carrying out important roles for a variety of industry bodies and usually joined by his equally dedicated wife Dorothy. The couple, who both retired late last year, spoke to Forestry Journal to share their thoughts about forestry and timber’s past, present and future.

IT can be funny where life takes you.

As a youngster, David Sulman never imagined he would grow up to become one of the most widely recognised and respected figures in the British timber trade. Growing up in Hertfordshire, he always imagined he would pursue a career in farming or estate management, but the development of some fairly serious eye problems prompted a rethink.

Put off the idea of studying for years at university, he was encouraged to join his family members in the construction industry, but soon realised he was far more interested in construction materials.

In 1979 he joined Mallinson-Denny as a technical trainee, undergoing training at various UK locations in hardwood, softwood and sheet materials operations, including time at the UK’s only plywood mill.

“It was absolutely fascinating,” he recalled. “It was good training, because they made sure you started at the sharp end. The first day was at the very comfortable head office in London, but the next was working at a wharf in London, where timber barges were arriving at the docks from all over the world.

“I’d be out there, working with gangs measuring and grading. Arguably, it’s the best way to learn. If someone asks what a piece of Honduras mahogany or African padauk looks like, you know because you’ve handled it.

“Back then, in the hardwood trade, there was an amazing variety of species with an equally varied range of end users and uses. Then I moved on to the second year in softwood, which offered a bit less variety, but it was interesting.

“The third year was at the plywood mill, which was set up during WWII to produce plywood for mosquito aircraft, so by the 1970s it was already a bit of a museum piece. Huge logs would be brought in from West Africa and elsewhere to be put in a pit and steamed to soften them. Then they would be turned at high speed against a lathe and peeled, rather like a roll of carpet – it was absolutely awe-inspiring.”

The passion he developed for timber at this time would serve him well soon after, when he secured a post at the Timber Research & Development Association (TRADA), where he was their youngest regional officer, based firstly in London and then at the High Wycombe headquarters.

“I was working in a small team doing technical advisory work, talking with architects, companies and members of the public,” he said. “You could be asked anything and everything to do with wood. Because TRADA was an independent body it was regularly asked to go look at buildings or be involved in litigation, providing an independent opinion. There’s no doubt, looking back, that it was a tremendous learning ground. Then one day, my boss said my counterpart in Scotland was retiring and asked if I would be interested in the job.”

And so, in 1983, David moved up to Scotland, where his first task was relocating the office from its expensive home in Glasgow’s Charing Cross to somewhere more affordable, settling on a former cigarette factory in Stirling. His second task was to hire a secretary.

Forestry Journal:  David at his desk at Stirling Enterprise Park, where he worked for many years. David at his desk at Stirling Enterprise Park, where he worked for many years.

Enter Dorothy, fated in 1985 to become his wife as well as his close colleague, at his side until they both decided to retire late last year (throughout Forestry Journal’s discussion with David, she was on hand to keep him right on names and dates).

Together, they successfully managed the new TRADA, which included serving as Secretary to the Scottish Consortium of Timber Frame Industries, before David returned to Mallinson-Denny, where he became operations manager at the Grangemouth site. A return to TRADA as senior consultant in Stirling followed.

This period included serving as Secretary to the UK Softwood Sawmillers Association, which represented the technical and commercial interests of the British-grown timber sector, and the two were later recruited to manage the newly formed UK Forest Products Association in 1996, which provided a strong and professional voice for the wood processing sector in the UK. In 2019, UKFPA merged with Confor and David was appointed deputy chief executive.

In addition, David and Dorothy served as secretaries to the Scottish Timber Trade Association (STTA), representing imported timber interests in Scotland, for 26 and 28 years respectively.

“There’s been a constant thread of interest in the commercial and technical sides and the traditional committee and trade association work,” David said. “I’ve been very fortunate in having a career that’s presented tremendous variety and great people to work with of all sorts. It is quite amazing that time really does fly by.”

Looking back, David considers himself lucky for having a good technical grounding.

Forestry Journal: Dorothy mans a stand for the UKFPA at the APF Show in 2014.Dorothy mans a stand for the UKFPA at the APF Show in 2014.

“Everyone who came through that Mallinson-Denny route was really lucky. It was a tremendous training ground,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s a shame now that there doesn’t seem to be the level of basic technical knowledge about the raw material. I think that really is a retrograde step.

“People ask why the training isn’t there now and I suspect a large part of it was, back in the 1970s and ’80s, there was a financial incentive for companies to train, because they paid a levy. I wouldn’t for one minute class myself as a supporter of levies, but it did the necessary.

“Sadly, the apprenticeship levy, as it stands, is a bit of a blunt instrument. Hopefully it can be fine-tuned and made more relevant to the small and medium-sized businesses which characterise our sector.

“On the forestry side, people traditionally went off and did a forestry degree at Aberdeen, Oxford or Bangor – and sadly, most of those have disappeared completely or are continuing to wither – or went a more technical route through Newton Rigg or one of the old Forestry Commission schools. Inevitably, higher education is focussed on bums on seats and the cost of providing courses. I’ve heard people saying in colleges they can fill rooms with youngsters looking to study beauty or forensic science, so those courses are grossly oversubscribed and compared to forestry are fairly cheap to deliver.

“So you understand where the difficulty arises for further and higher education, but it doesn’t answer the needs of our sector.

“Our industry is about trees and it’s about people. Perhaps there’s been insufficient focus on the people. There’s been a high degree of focus on the tree side of things, but I think, perhaps because for so many years there was a steady stream of forestry graduates, that side was ignored. Now, forestry suffers from this problem of an ageing workforce. Increasingly, you look over your shoulder and wonder who is going to follow on.”

Forestry Journal: David and Dorothy at a members’ event at Ludlow Races in 2019.David and Dorothy at a members’ event at Ludlow Races in 2019.

As members of so many trade bodies and industry organisations, the issue of tree planting – securing the raw material of the future – has been a constant focus for David and Dorothy across the decades. It is an area that has seen tremendous change, big developments, a lot of false starts and more than a few disappointments.

“I think everyone in the sector can see opportunities, but there are frustrations when you get lots of fine words from official bodies and politicians, academics and others, but nothing happens,” David said.

“One of the benefits of devolution for forestry has been a Scottish government which recognises the value of trees, woodlands, forests and the forestry industry. One couldn’t say the same in England and Wales. At least Scotland’s government has got the message.

“The best environment we can hope for is one in which there’s a presumption in favour of forestry. If you’ve got that, then all sorts of good things can happen. But look at what’s happening in England and Wales and ask yourself if there’s an official presumption. There doesn’t appear to be.

“We now have the situation where trees and woodlands get the thumbs up in Scotland and one would have to acknowledge the role Fergus Ewing has played. I think without his interest, enthusiasm and perseverance, we wouldn’t have made the advances that we have.

“People rolled their sleeves up and decided to do things properly. And the whole process was streamlined. It’s now much easier and people are seeing an official presumption in favour of forestry. If you’re starting with that, it makes the job so much easier.

“Contrast that with England where, despite people wanting more trees, it simply hasn’t happened. People get excited now if someone’s planting 100 hectares. It’s seen as a huge victory.”

Forestry Journal: David on a UKFPA study tour to Austria in 2015.David on a UKFPA study tour to Austria in 2015.

So what about all the tremendous planting targets announced by the various political parties in the run-up to the general election?

“It was a bidding war,” said David. “Most people could see it for what it was. I don’t think anyone believed a word of it. Those who took time to think about it said they were fine numbers, but what were they going to plant? Where would they plant them? Where were they going to get all these trees from? All these figures seemed to me to be soundbites, because they weren’t at all meaningful.

“Sadly, there has been a succession of politicians who have come along and said the right things, but it hasn’t translated into action. That’s been a real frustration. The time for a better approach to woodland creation of all sorts, in England, is long overdue. The industry has to redouble its efforts to educate and inform ministers, their advisors and their officials. And it needs to be done with rather more vigour than has been the case for many years. There are lessons to be learned from other sectors about how you might go about doing that. I’m not at all convinced the money our sector has put into these sorts of activities in recent years has really yielded any meaningful benefit.

“Money is hard enough to come by in our sector as it is and I think a lot of money has probably been wasted, over the years, in the guise of lobbying. It’s been pretty ineffectual as far as Westminster is concerned, certainly post-Devolution.

“We know ministerial appointments are a bit like a revolving door. That’s a fact of life we have to live with. There is no point beating a path to politicians’ doors complaining and demanding things. Industry knows this. You need to present them with solutions. That was a lesson the industry learned belatedly.

I also think it’s the case that our industry is not adept in the political arena. Dare I say it, I think some people get starstruck in the presence of politicians. I’ve seen it. Just because someone organises a meeting at Westminster and a minister glides in and glides out, some people think their job’s done. But it’s not. At best it’s a start, but it has to be sustained and, more importantly, it has to be focussed. It’s very easy to spend money doing that sort of thing. It’s like advertising. You can throw millions at it, but it’s often very difficult to quantify whether that money’s being well spent.

“The industry needs to take a long, hard look at what it wants in terms of influencing people. Not just politicians – all sorts of people. What can realistically be done with the money industry is prepared to put into it?”

As key figures on so many influential boards and associations, David and Dorothy are passionate about their importance in bringing people together and organising priorities for the sector, ensuring it is heard by those in power. And it’s clear they worry for their future.

Forestry Journal: David with Alastair Kerr (WPIF) and Alasdair McGregor (TRADA) at Westminster in 2017.David with Alastair Kerr (WPIF) and Alasdair McGregor (TRADA) at Westminster in 2017.

Dorothy said: “In the last few years, we were struggling with succession on boards, finding people to chair. It was difficult to get them to commit to being there.

“Now you look around tables and see the same old faces. Young people aren’t coming in and they’re not interested, but they don’t realise that if they’re not at the table they won’t see any improvements.”

David said: “We need some leaders. I think there are fewer charismatic people in our sector now. Not so many years ago, someone could ask you who the industry leaders were and everyone would agree very quickly on half a dozen names. Today, I’m not sure it would be that easy.”

This isn’t a slight against anyone coming up through the ranks now, but is, David reckoned, a troubling symptom of the world we live in now.

He said: “There are different demands on working people these days. Everyone has very demanding day jobs and don’t have the time to work for the common good with their counterparts in other businesses. And there was a great deal of that in the past. That’s probably one of the reasons we’ve seen a degree of consolidation in the trade association world.

“When the UKFPA was established, it was set up to be a trade association for the British-grown timber sector to represent its technical and commercial interests. Until that time, while there had been trade associations, almost without exception they were run on a part-time basis and they were reliant on people in the industry giving up days here and there to go to meetings, sit on committees and travel to events. It became increasingly obvious people’s day jobs were getting more demanding and that, as the industry started to mature, it needed to be on its own solid foundation with full-time staff to do the work.

“So there was a courtship between two previous trade associations – there was the British Timber Merchants Association, which was largely English interests, and the UK Softwood Sawmillers Association, which was largely but not exclusively Scottish. Eventually, the UKFPA was born and Dorothy and I became full-time employees. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were united, which was no mean feat, and it had 21 years of considerable success.”

Forestry Journal: Dorothy and David are bid a fond farewell by Scott Shiells and Roderick Aitken of the STTA.Dorothy and David are bid a fond farewell by Scott Shiells and Roderick Aitken of the STTA.

A relatively small-scale operation, the UKFPA operated with a modest budget of about £120,000 a year.

“But at no stage did any of us say to our members or anyone else that we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have the resources,” said David. “If there’s one thing, over the years, that has really made my blood boil, it’s people who say, ‘We can’t do that, because we haven’t got the resources’. The resources are your time, your knowledge and experience. I’ve heard it so many times in other trade associations that are far better resourced than the UKFPA ever was – better than Confor, perhaps. If you’re a professional organisation, you have an understanding of what your industry is about and what’s important to your members. You shouldn’t need to be told. It’s the members who pay your wages, week in and week out and that’s something you should never lose sight of.”

When David and Dorothy retired from Confor a few months ago, they closed the book on a combined service of 77 years to the industry. And they made the deliberate decision not to ‘keep their hands in’ with any boards or committees, preferring to make a clean break to focus on pursuits that have nothing to do with the timber trade.

Having said that, David’s passion for the industry remains keen and his hopes for its future remain high.

“The industry has tremendous opportunities. There are some relatively short-term challenges. And it shouldn’t be too difficult, given commitment, determination and appropriate political will; that should see a very bright future for forestry in the UK.

“If I had a magic wand, one of the things I would like to grant would be that people had a bit more foresight. You have to invest for the future. It has been done in the past, but sadly too many of these initiatives have fallen by the wayside. We have to take a longer view across the board, whether looking at nurseries, education – all those things are interlinked. Just throwing your efforts at one won’t bring the kind of rewards everyone is looking for.”

Exercising a gift for understatement, David summed up: “It’s interesting times. If we were to look into the crystal ball to see where our industry will be in 10 years’ time, I don’t know. Presumably we’ll continue to see further consolidation. That seems to be an inevitability.

“It would be nice if we were seeing more being used, that planting rates were racing ahead. It would be nice if there were good opportunities for young people and career changers so they could come into the industry easily and be well trained.

“But our industry is people and trees. We’re beginning to address the trees bit, slowly but surely. There’s more work to be done on the people.”