In 2023, Först marked its 10th anniversary as a market-leading manufacturer of high performance, robust woodchippers. In the midst of a year of celebration, essentialARB travelled to the company’s production facility in Andover, Hampshire, for an exclusive tour and a chat with commercial director Doug Ghinn looking back at its first decade in business and plans for the future.

IT’S a company with a reputation for delivering machinery with no-holds-barred performance and features, along with robust and tough construction. Its sleek and stylish designs have also helped ensure the brand’s place as one of the most coveted by the discerning arb crowd. It’s assuredly cemented its place as one of the top arb machinery brands in Europe, but only 10 years ago, Först didn’t exist.

It was in 2013 that the brand had its launch at that year’s ARB Show, but the journey to its creation began two years earlier.

One of the UK’s longest-established specialist suppliers to the arboricultural industry, Redwood Global (previously Redwood UK) was once best-known as being a dealer for Jensen, the renowned German woodchipper brand.

Jensen’s largest dealer and the sole importer for the UK, Redwood did a lot of business, positioning its products as high-quality, German-made, slightly more expensive rivals to the likes of Timberwolf and GreenMech, focusing on larger contractors.

It proved a very successful partnership until 2011, when the manufacturer imposed dramatic price increases which would have wiped out Redwood’s profit margins overnight.

“We were in a position where we had to find something else to sell or make our own products in the 6” range,” said commercial director Doug Ghinn.  “We didn’t think we would find anything else on the market, so we cracked on with developing our own machine. Because we sell directly to the end-user market we were very close to customers, hearing their grumbles and gripes every day, and we already knew what was good and bad about every brand out there.”

Forestry Journal: MAIN: Först used to work to a ‘build to order’ strategy but has now switched to a ‘build to stock’ approach.MAIN: Först used to work to a ‘build to order’ strategy but has now switched to a ‘build to stock’ approach. (Image: eA)

Over the following months, working out of a draughty farm shed with limited resources, a welder and a lot of determination, the team put together a prototype for a new 6” woodchipper, naming it the Först ST6.

Doug said the name was chosen with an eye to the global market. He explained: “Back in the day, we were known as the Jensen people. Jensen is a German brand, synonymous with European quality. In developing our machine, we didn’t want to lose that. We knew what we were delivering was just as good, if not better than a German product. We wanted to keep those connotations and always had aspirations from day one to go into Europe. ‘Först’ means ‘first’ in Swedish and, if you take the umlauts away, it means ‘forest’ in German, so it delivers a message for us.”

READ MORE: ARB Show 2023: Först marks 10th birthday in fine style

When reps and customers got a sneak peek at the new machine, they loved it and at 2013’s ARB Show it was unveiled to the public, along with a market-leading three-year warranty.

“We had Jensen on that stand as well, the two brands selling alongside each other,” Doug recalled.

“It worked well for that first year. We had a package, offering a 6” Först and an 8” or 9” Jensen. It worked and Jensen sales went up.

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“But the interest in Först was growing. We were working 24/7 trying to knock them together out of our shed on the farm. Within a year we could see it was going places so we developed the 8” inch range, launching at the APF in 2014.” 

In 2015 the European market beckoned, with Först chippers selling across the continent. The company designed and launched the XR8 Traxion, suited to meet the needs of customers in the rail sector.

2016 saw the formation of a German subsidiary, allowing for a further push into Europe, while 2017 was the year of the ST6P, Först’s sub-750 kg machine and its fastest seller.

“Until 2017 we didn’t have a 750 kg product because we always said we wouldn’t build machines to a weight if it meant compromising on quality,” said Doug. “Generally, the sub-750 machines out there are lighter duty and get hammered, especially by the group contractors.

Forestry Journal: : All wiring is made up of plug-and-play connectors, so any problems can usually be easily solved by customers.: All wiring is made up of plug-and-play connectors, so any problems can usually be easily solved by customers. (Image: eA)

“However, with the emission regulation changes, petrol suddenly became a lot more attractive, so we decided to try a petrol engine in a 6” chipper. We opted for a 37 hp Briggs and Stratton Vanguard, which is a lot lighter than a diesel engine. We made the chassis shorter, used materials that made it a bit lighter in weight and managed to make it so the guts of that machine – the chipping chamber, hopper, all the stuff that does the work – are exactly the same as on our heavier models. From launch it went like a rocket and today remains our best-selling product.”

The company expanded further in 2018, adding a second site in Andover to enable it to meet increasing demand and have a dedicated aftersales and service space.

From inception, customer service had always been paramount for the company and with the direct sales and service model it proved it could really deliver that. However, with increasing machine sales meaning more and more chippers working across the country, Först decided to move to a specialist dealer model in the north of England and Scotland to ensure the brand could continue to deliver excellent service to end customers. 

Forestry Journal:  An ST8 awaits the installation of its engine. An ST8 awaits the installation of its engine. (Image: eA)

Today, that dealer network includes ILH Groundcare in Scotland, Spectrum Plant in the north-west of England and Pro-Arb Machinery in the north-east. Först continues to sell directly to the rest of the UK.

2019 also saw the creation of Först’s first range of Stage V compliant diesel chippers and the launch of FörstAssist, its technical support team, always on hand on the phone or in person to ensure customers can keep working.

Stressing the value of FörstAssist, its backup and warranty, Doug said: “About 80 per cent of issues we can fix over the phone. The fix is often something really simple. If it’s not, we will come to you, unless it’s quicker for you to get the machine to us. We’ll ascertain on the phone how bad it is. If it’s a proper big issue we’ll bring a loaner machine. But our backup team’s vans are fully kitted out mobile workshops, so there’s very little they can’t do on site.

“Our customer service and backup really is second to none. In a lot of the UK we sell direct to the end user. Where we don’t sell direct and we sell through dealers, we make sure we work with dealers who are very arb-focused and understand our customers and their needs. That is very important to us. The customer experience has always been one of our top priorities, along with ensuring the quality of the product.”

Inspired by its success in Germany, which is a big market for turntable products, Först next launched the TT6, a 6” turntable woodchipper. It was launched in 2020, just as the world was plunged into chaos.

Forestry Journal:  Although Först still only sells 6” and 8” machines, it offers many different engine options. Although Först still only sells 6” and 8” machines, it offers many different engine options. (Image: eA)

“It was quite a difficult machine to develop, but we got there just as COVID came along,” said Doug.

“As a result we had massive supply chain problems and couldn’t build units. We launched it, but didn’t actually start delivering until 2022. So that machine is still in its infancy.”

In 2022, approaching its 10-year anniversary, the company took a step back to consider its aims and ambitions and drew up four core values:

WE’VE GOT YOUR BACK: Whether you are a customer, supplier or colleague we are in this together and we respect and support each other.

EVERY CUSTOMER IS A VIP: Customers are everything. We aim to deliver a first-class customer experience every single time a customer interacts with Först, wherever they are in the world.

EXCELLENCE AS STANDARD: It’s what we strive for every day, in every area of our business. We build high-performance machines and provide an aftercare service that is second to none because our customers deserve it.

ENJOY THE RIDE: We love our industry, we’re on a journey to become a global brand of choice. Every person who shares this journey with us is vital to it. Enjoy it.

Looking back across its 10-year journey, it certainly has been an incredible ride. There are currently over 9,500 Först chippers out in the world, with the company set to achieve the milestone of 10,000 machines built before the end of this year. Around 60 per cent of sales are to customers outside the UK, with dealers in more than 25 countries around the world, the furthest flung in New Zealand. And it has grown to three times the size of the next largest woodchipper manufacturer in the UK and Europe.

Forestry Journal:  Doug Ghinn, commercial director at Först. Doug Ghinn, commercial director at Först. (Image: eA)

Asked if he could pinpoint the key reasons behind Först’s success, Doug said: “The product itself is very good. It sells itself when you get it in front of a customer. It performs better than anything else in its class. It’s more aggressive, it’s faster. The aftersales service is genuinely second to none.

"And we understand our customers in detail, communicating with them in a very straightforward way.

“We’ve had challenges. We initially had some reliability problems with our product, which you’re always going to get when you launch a new machine. But where we have had problems, we’ve sorted them out and that’s why people come back to us. We’ve got a good team. Our people bleed orange, they believe in our vision. Everyone’s energised about where we can go and what we can do. We’ve created a brand which people want to be associated with and a product that looks better than anything else on the market.”

So what does the future hold for Först? 2023 has certainly been a year of celebration for the brand, becoming the main sponsor of the Arb Show, the industry event at which it made its debut. But behind the scenes, the focus has emphatically been on research and development.

“You’ve got to keep moving,” said Doug. “You can’t if you slow down. It’s a bit like the car industry in that you always need to have a new model in development. Your competition is always on your heels.”

Forestry Journal: Two sub-assembly lines converge into final assembly, followed by pre-delivery inspections.Two sub-assembly lines converge into final assembly, followed by pre-delivery inspections. (Image: eA)

So what does that mean? New woodchippers for sure, with an electric model teased, though it’s unclear – even to the team – when it might come on the market.

“Electric is one of the things on the drawing board,” said Doug. “I’m not sure when it will be the right time to launch. Battery technology moves very quickly, but we will build one. A full electric model that will run for a decent length of time without having to recharge and will chip as well as if not better than a standard machine is inevitable. And once we know we can do it and sell it at a price which makes sense commercially for arborists, we will.”

However, the next big product launch for Först, while still aimed at the arb market, may not be a woodchipper at all. Doug hinted at some huge strides forward the firm has made in recent months in terms of new product innovation, some of which may be revealed before the end of the year.

And he addressed some trends in the market which have helped to inform those new developments.

“The whole manual handling thing is quite interesting,” he said. “There is a skill shortage, with it becoming harder and harder to find people that are willing to lug timber around all day long. And there’s a lot more cherry pickers out there. Generally, across the industry, everything’s becoming much more mechanised.

“We have some things in development at the moment which will respond to some of those trends. We’ve established a brand with a great reputation, we’ve got the back-up, so it makes sense to develop other products to go to the same market. They’re not too far off.”

Time will tell what those products will be and what Först will achieve in its next decade. But its ambitions remain sky high.

Forestry Journal: Först’s production facility is based in Andover, Hampshire.Först’s production facility is based in Andover, Hampshire. (Image: eA)

“Our purpose is to support arborists with world-class machinery to create a better environment,” said Doug. 

“Our vision is to become the global brand of choice for arboricultural machinery. It sounds bold, but that’s what we’re aiming for. And there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up down the pipeline.”