Bruce Allen has had a long and incredibly varied career.
After his first job out of high school working as a casual at the Sydney timber yard, Primrose, Bruce now owns and operates Wren Timbers in Cairns, Far North Queensland.
However, for a large chunk of his life, Bruce was not involved in the timber industry at all.
After working at Primrose, Bruce went to university, graduated and worked as an exploration geologist for a number of years, before moving to London to work in the financial markets there.
Following his time in London, Bruce worked in marketing for Reuters for almost 20 years, as he told TimberTrader News recently.
“I spent 18 or 19 years at Reuters, travelling and living all around the world in Europe and the Middle East,” Bruce said.
“When I left Reuters, I worked with an American financial group for a while.”
After the American company closed down, following decades of the cosmopolitan business life, Bruce felt the desire to work with timber once again as he had all those years ago as a teenager.
“Maybe the sawdust got into my blood,” Bruce mused as he recalled that first job in Sydney.
Bruce’s first foray back into the timber industry began as a small venture with an associate, an Australian man who was born and brought up in New Guinea.
“We started a small business and we had a small mill in Lae for a while exporting Teak and Rosewood,” Bruce explained.
However, in the end, the tyranny of distance meant the business could not be maintained.
“The choice had to be made to wither move to New Guinea and to live there, or give up the endeavour, we couldn’t manage it at a distance,” Bruce said.
“My associate was initially going to move to New Guinea to manage it, but after his wife had some children, they decided to stay in Australia, so we closed that down.
“And then, for my sins, I got back into timber,” Bruce added, with a wry chuckle.
Bruce came up to Cairns around 2000, keen to find a timber business up for sale, and ultimately took over Wren Timbers in 2004.
“My eldest daughter and my son ended up in Cairns, so I used to visit them and ended up here as well,” Bruce said. “In those days I was still living all over the place.”
“I saw this little business and thought that it had some promise to develop into something better. So we took it over in 2004, purchased these premises, moved here in 2005 and started developing from a fairly targeted business into a more broad building supplies business,” Bruce continued.
Bruce also added that given the recent state of business, diversifying and doing more than just selling timber has been the only way to survive.
“We’ve always focused on machinery, and machining, that’s always been a way to differentiate ourselves from other competitors, and it’s the only way we’ve really kept going through the last few years,” Bruce explained.
“Because just buying and selling timber, unless you can get it in reasonable volumes, there’s no margin in it to survive.”
The business does some contract machining, but does a lot of work in buying timber and then value adding, turning timber into decking, flooring or mouldings.
However, it is typically job specific rather than mass produced.
“A lot of the work we do is matching the old Queenslander profiles that are now no longer available off the shelf,” Bruce said.
“When we make a set of knives to copy a particular profile, we’ll run a bit more and put it in stock. So there’s some left over for the next person.”
The business is situated on a 6000 sq m black and has six employees, although Bruce explained that at one point it employed as many as 20 people.
“With things how they are at the moment, you have to cut costs,” Bruce said. “And as unfortunate as it is, staff is the biggest single cost.”
Bruce also told TimberTrader News that when the markets first started to come down, there was more renovation work going around.
However, as the markets have stayed depressed, even that side of the business has slowly become quieter.
“Now it’s the odd big project that’s kept a lot of us going,” Bruce said.
For Wren Timbers this has meant a lot of work on the foreshore project in Cairns, which has afforded them quite a bit of recycling and machining work.
“A lot of it is recycled timber that they’ve pulled out of the old buildings there and which we’ve put down here, put across a bench, cleaned up, re-sawed and in some cases also done a bit of joinery,” Bruce explained.
Bruce added that the development of the esplanade would be good for Cairns; a place which he said is “an unlikely tourist destination.”
“Basically it’s a piece of coastal swamp,” Bruce said. “It’s got no beach; it’s a staging point.
“So to keep the people here when they come, you’ve got to have some facilities that make the place attractive.
“In that sense the local government is doing well,” Bruce went on.
“They understand the place needs to be made attractive so that dollars are spent here, rather than going straight out onto the reef, up into the table lands or up to the Daintree or wherever tourists might be taking it.”
Despite what Bruce sees as the good work of the local government, he still feels that any significant improvement in business in the area will take at least a few years.
“We’ve really got to wait for private investment to start flooding back into the area and that’s not going to happen until this area becomes more of an attractive place to live or invest,” Bruce said.
“And while the Australian dollar remains so strong, that’s very problematic, given the region’s dependence on tourism.”
Despite the climate, Bruce can see a way forward for his company.
“At the moment we’re going to continue to keep our focus on the machining side of things, and really to keep our heads down until things improve,” he explained.
“If you can do that and survive, you can take advantage of things that improve over time.”“I don’t think they’re going to get any worse, but they’re not going to suddenly get better either. You have to adjust and live within the levels of the current market.
Article courtesy of TimberTrader News, Issue No. 317 – November 2012, Pg. 11-12.