A career in pharmacy didn’t prepare Johnathan Laird for a life in forestry, but through application of business theory his firewood company has flourished.

PEOPLE come to the forestry industry through many different routes, bringing with them many different skill sets and life experiences. This is certainly the case with Johnathan Laird, the man behind the Barrel Bothy, a firewood company based in the north-east of Scotland. He is a qualified and practicing pharmacist, successful podcaster, magazine editor, business consultant and entrepreneur – as well as, now, a forester.

“I have been a pharmacist for 16 years and have worked in a number of management roles in that time,” he said. “I dabbled in pharmacy politics and a few years ago was elected to the board of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Six years ago, I started my first business, a pharmacy magazine called Pharmacy in Practice.

"This has evolved into a number of activities including a successful podcast, an annual conference, a consultancy business and our new business called Pharmacy Finder, which recently achieved a significant round of investment.”

Forestry Journal:  Processing can now be done under cover, having started off having to work exposed to the elements. Processing can now be done under cover, having started off having to work exposed to the elements. (Image: FJ/supplied)

It seems Johnathan’s desire to be an entrepreneur started out at an early age.

Having been allowed to borrow his dad’s lawnmower, he set about offering grass-cutting services to the neighbours and within three years had a client base in double figures. He has no doubt this gave him the business bug and he has strived from these early beginnings to add value to any company he has been involved in, and ensure excellent customer service is always at the forefront.

Johnathan, who is from Northern Ireland, moved to Scotland to study pharmacy and it was here he met and married his wife Holly. They now have two children, Ruairi and Aoife.

“Like many people who go into pharmacy I’m a failed medic,” he said. “I had offers to do medicine at school but largely due to the distraction of being head boy in my final year I did not get the grades I was expecting. I was fortunate to gain a place at Robert Gordon University – despite not even having the grades for pharmacy – and I have never looked back.”

Forestry Journal: The flotation tyres on the timber trailer come into their own when not on the road.The flotation tyres on the timber trailer come into their own when not on the road. (Image: FJ/supplied)

The move into forestry came a few years ago, after his father-in-law Andrew Mitchell brought home six condemned whisky barrels. 

“I cannot remember why, but I decided to use the oak staves to make a coat hook,” said Johnathan. “I subsequently made adirondack chairs, planters and dog beds. The dog beds in particular were very popular. I stripped the oak staves, painted the hoops black and finished with copper nails. However, it was time-consuming work.”

He eventually hit on a more efficient way to make money by turning the oak staves into firewood instead.

“Eliyahu Goldratt’s book The Goal explains how the evolution of any business is always limited by specific constraints. In my case, the constraint with the whisky barrel craft items was the time taken to create a sellable product. I decided to remove this constraint by cutting the oak staves to sell as firewood. It’s extremely popular but still time-consuming to prepare.”

Forestry Journal: A load of logs in the Debon trailer.A load of logs in the Debon trailer. (Image: FJ/supplied)

An online firewood business was created in 2020. Johnathan explained: “I used targeted digital advertising to build the Barrel Bothy brand. Currently we offer softwood, hardwood and cut whisky stave firewood. All our sales are online and go through our website. Building websites is another skill I have learned along the way.

"A website is often overlooked in favour of using social media to market businesses, but I have always thought that setting out your brand on a website creates a sense of professionalism. In addition, if I ever sold the business, the website and associated data would be invaluable. Having had a profitable first year I decided to try to scale the firewood business and set about more self-investing.”

This ‘self investment’ has seen Jonathan purchase a number of pieces of kit required for firewood production, such as a Binderberger SSP 450 firewood processor.

“It’s a cracking machine but with the downside that quite a few aspects have to be right for it to fly,” he said. “Maintaining the saw alone seems easy, but to do it well takes skill and patience. The Binderberger SSP 450, which we call ‘Bindy’, is turning out to be an excellent investment. The agent for Binderberger in the UK, Allan Marshall, of Marshall Engineering, has been extremely helpful. The processor is central to the business at the moment so Allan’s hints, tips, and quickly despatched spares have been invaluable.”

A 1982 Zetor Crystal 8045 tractor runs the firewood processor. Johnathan’s other tractor, which he uses for pulling his timber trailer, is a John Deere 6310.

Forestry Journal: Johnathan is able to do most of his own forwarding of timber.Johnathan is able to do most of his own forwarding of timber. (Image: FJ/supplied)

“It’s a good tractor but more at home carting barley or turning hay rather than working in a forest,” he said. “It has poor visibility for loader work and not enough grunt to handle my timber trailer when full. I think I will aim to replace it with a Valtra with at least 150 hp and a small telehandler for moving things around the yard. To be honest, when I started out I was not aware of how certain tractors, particularly Valtras, are adapted for forestry work.”

He has two trailer options – a Debon three-way PW3 model 3.5-tonne tipper and a Ryetec 13-tonne timber trailer with KTS 7.5 crane. 

“The Debon build quality, in my opinion, is not a patch on Ifor Williams, but the aluminium sides reduce overall weight. I upgraded it by buying the mesh sides. The battery is fine so far, but I would prefer if it charged on the run. The buttons for tipping are not stowed away well and there is no manual tipping function. I rarely use the sideways tipping function as I find the problem with it, which was not obvious when I bought the trailer, is that side tipping usually results in whatever’s in the trailer – in my case logs – being stuck between the wheels. Reverse tipping allows you to drive off.

“With the Ryetec, if I load carefully, I can get two 3-m bags on, so I am happy with capacity. I also like the fact that the hydraulic motors on the rear two wheels get you out of trouble when necessary. The crane speed is adequate for me, but I suspect others would find it a bit slow. The flotation tyres get a bit warm when used on the road, so I will probably replace them with an intermediate tyre in due course.

“The rest of my kit comprises an Igland 55 5.5-tonne winch, which pulls well. I would like more power and the fancy remote-control option, but the business currently is not busy enough to justify it. I have a Riko 26-tonne splitter, a simple log splitter with a 2-m ram. This allows us to handle the big stuff. I have a pallet rotator, which allows me to load my trailer by emptying intermediate bulk container (IBC) cages.


“We have three chainsaws, which include a Husqvarna 445, a Husqvarna T540XP and an Echo CS-73108X. All three are useful. We use the smaller ones for snedding when out in the forest, and the bigger Echo really makes cross-cutting very comfortable. For me, the Echo has plenty of power. The design is such that maintenance is straightforward and my supplier, Hugh Michie, at HFM Tools and Equipment in Keith, gives excellent aftersales support. I have to admit that the build quality of the Husqvarna saws is nicer, but the Echo does not disappoint when on the job.”

Johnathan carries out timber sourcing himself, having found, to his cost, that being reliant on others can have an impact if they let you down (though he doesn’t rule out outsourcing in future).

“During this growth phase of the business, I have focused on vertically integrating our activities. Despite being a small outfit, I wanted to be able to handle the timber myself throughout the process. I have a mixed model to procure timber. I have a Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) contract that allows me to buy up to 250 tonnes annually, but we also do land clearance, forestry and a little bit of timber haulage in return for stock. It is not really worth our while going into the forest for softwood, so we do it only for hardwood.

“We fell, forward and prepare the timber ourselves. Like others in the sector, many of our forestry projects are reciprocal deals where we swap the service for timber.

The approach of felling, forwarding with our winch and extracting with the timber trailer/crane is fine for smaller projects. For more significant forestry jobs or if I need significant volumes of timber moved, I use Callum Marr of C&K Marr transport at Dufftown. Callum gives excellent service and has supported us greatly as we got up and running.” 

Jonathan’s yard is in an old quarry near Huntly and Andrew has helped him turn it into a base for his firewood business.

“I have to thank him for his help and enthusiasm in creating a logistical platform, including groundwork to drain our yard, the building of a processing shed, machinery maintenance and also for the design of a nifty sawdust-collection unit made out of an IBC. It was a very clever idea and works very well. The processor has a fan powered by a hydraulic motor, which extracts sawdust after each cut and delivers it down the pipe. 

“The sawdust-collection device has a builder’s bag suspended inside it and at the side. It has an air outlet with a bag there to catch what little sawdust makes its way up through that hole. The huge advantage of this contraption is that the level of mess and work involved in recovering waste sawdust is drastically reduced. A secondary advantage is that the fan motor can be run at a slightly higher speed, without making a complete mess, if required. Andrew recently retired from a career in logistics so I am lucky to benefit from his experience.” 

Johnathan is fortunate to have a growing customer base. He supplies domestic clients and will cover areas in Moray and Aberdeenshire. He has customers returning year after year, which for him is an unexpected pleasure of the business.

He firmly believes that, as in any business, if you are polite, do what you say you are going to do and deliver a good product, folk will purchase and give you return business.  

Forestry Journal: Johnathan stores the logs in IBC cages, which are loaded using a hydraulic pallet rotator.Johnathan stores the logs in IBC cages, which are loaded using a hydraulic pallet rotator. (Image: FJ/supplied)

Asked how he saw things currently and what his plans were for the future, he said: “Things have been going well. Sales this winter should cover this round of investment by summer 2024. As such, we are entering a period of consolidation. I would like to get into milling in due course. I quite like the look of the Wood-Mizer machines. Having built a shed for the processing equipment this year I would like to look at a large concrete-floored shed next year. I have a vision of creating airflow underneath the floor to aid the drying of firewood or eventually milled wood. Finally, I am exploring alternative energy options to power wood-drying equipment. This is maybe a few years away, though.” 

Johnathan is very happy with where Barrel Bothy has got to. For him, if you have a lack of experience with any business you need to really immerse yourself in it fully, work out where the constraints are and find your market. He thinks many people these days prefer to have a portfolio career, while he has demonstrated the ability to balance his pharmacy magazine business and pharmacy practice with his timber business.  

“My advice on the firewood business front is really that unless you scale at least to the level I am at you will probably get fed up eventually,” he said. “Working with smaller machines is time-consuming and doesn’t leave you with enough to run an efficient, profitable operation. I am grateful that I almost accidentally bought a processor that was much bigger than I intended. This spurred me on try to achieve a machinery portfolio and workflow that would allow me to do most of the work myself. 

Forestry Journal: The big Echo saw making light work of some Sitka spruce.The big Echo saw making light work of some Sitka spruce. (Image: FJ/supplied)

“Apart from splitting the bigger timber, I can carry out the day-to-day running of the firewood side myself. I would not rule out growing the firewood business by taking on staff eventually, but the downside risks of that, both physically and financially at the moment, don’t stack up. The second bit of advice I would suggest is that the customer is the boss. It is easy, after a physically or technically difficult day, to get irritated by a demanding customer. Consistent excellent customer care is vital. 

“Finally, I would suggest regularly asking for feedback on your product from your customers. In the thick of the process, it is easy to forget that no amount of good service will get customers to return if the core product is poor. The initial goal I had was to never have to buy firewood for our families and I am happy to have achieved that. I now have a viable business that we can run as is or invest in further in future.

“I am sure my learning curve will continue and, looking to the future, I think milling will come over the horizon. Beyond that, I would be keen to explore distributor deals with forestry equipment suppliers. We would certainly have plenty of demo opportunities.”