Twenty-five years of friendship

David McDonnell has been in the timber industry all his working life, having joined PDT Hulmes in November 1983. The company was a timber merchant, manufacturer and importer based near Chorley, Lancashire, which itself has a long heritage that dates back to 1904 and was, at the time, part of the Powell Duffryn Timber empire, though it has had many owners in the years since.

“I joined PDT Hulmes through the YTS Youth Training Scheme, where I was given the chance to work throughout the business, trying out lots of different departments,” says McDonnell.

McDonnell worked in the sawmill, did yard labour, and spent time in the offices and transport departments, before being given the opportunity to move to internal – and then external – sales roles. As part of a management trainee programme, McDonnell also earned his City & Guilds Certificate in Timber Materials and Timber Trade Operations.

“It was an invaluable grounding in the industry that still works in my favour today,” McDonnell explains. “The thing about timber is that it’s an extremely complicated product, and an intricate industry that people who come in from other sectors can sometimes struggle to understand at first.

“But once people come into the industry, if they stay more than a year or so they tend to stay for a long time – it can be quite an incestuous industry at its heart.

”This was certainly the case for McDonnell, who joined the sales department at W.Howard Group on 1st November 1996 and has never looked back.

“When I first joined W.Howard Group, the company consisted of less than 20 people, and was primarily a timber merchant trading in a 70-mile radius around its head office in Astley, Greater Manchester.

“Having been with the company for so long, I’ve seen the highs and lows as we’ve grown the business from a single site to a £34 million group. What’s been so good about being with W.Howard all that time is that I’ve got to know everyone so well. I consider Jonathan Grant [W.Howard’s Group Executive Chairman] to be a personal friend as well as an employer, and so many of the customers I deal with now are the same people I was working with 20 years ago. It’s wonderful to be in an industry where you make lifelong friends, and not just colleagues.”

McDonnell’s first few years at W.Howard Group were similar to his time at PDT Hulmes, in that he had the opportunity to work in lots of different departments and to get to know everything about the company first hand.

He explains: “I love a challenge and I love variety, and when you’re running a business with just 16 people across the whole site, it means you get to do a bit of everything.”

As one of the longest-serving members of W.Howard Group, McDonnell has seen the business change direction as it moved into the manufacture and sale of MDF mouldings, accessories for skirting and architraves, as well as many other applications.

“Twenty-five years on, I still thoroughly enjoy my job. I’m lucky that as Business Development Director I’m now allowed the freedom to do what I think is right to grow the business: face-to-face contact with customers, finding new opportunities and converting them into new business – and I still get a buzz from all that, even now.”

McDonnell has a very strong work ethic and has been fundamentally involved in the growth of the business as W.Howard Group, and the industry as a whole, has developed new products and innovations.

“The industry is having to evolve and find new products, especially labour-saving ones, to tackle the serious skills shortage that we’re facing,” McDonnell explains.  

“A lack of skilled labour is the biggest challenge facing the entire industry, and it’s very evident that it’s only going to get bigger. Young people today mostly want office jobs, and the industry finds it very difficult to recruit, especially in a factory environment.

“So it’s about trying to find products to deskill the market and to help house builders cope with the lack of skilled trades. Timber will always be fundamental to construction, and people will always work in it, but it’s the products that will change.

”Traditional timber products are delivered to site ready for installation, but most still need to be primed and finished by painters and decorators. Modern products, such as KOTA by W.Howard Group, are delivered to site fully glossed or wrapped, taking away the need for that additional work and saving house builders significant time on site.

KOTA, for example, has advanced Eastman Cerfis technology applied at the factory to create interior profiles with a smooth, silky, ready-painted finish that’s perfect every time.

W.Howard Group also has a purpose-built, semi-automatic spraying line capable of fully finishing materials to match any specified RAL number.