Building a business the Bracken Timbers way

April 30, 2010

Bracken Timbers is a privately owned forestry and agriculture business that started way back in the 1920s when the Hill family purchased the farm, Bracken, near Greytown. The farm, which at that stage was primarily producing agricultural crops on a few hundred hectares, was taken over in 1959 by Martin Hill who has built it up over the years, buying up farms in the district and diversifying into forestry and sawmilling.

Bracken Timbers main guys Bracken Timbers' Thokozani Zondi and Murray Mason
Martin Hill (centre), the driving force behind Bracken Timbers, flanked by Managing Director Gary Schwarz (left) and Forestry Director Murray Mason. This compartment is Izanqawe's pride and joy, a fine stand of 11 year-old pines immaculately maintained by their own silviculture team that will one day fetch top dollar at the sawmill. Thokozani Zondi (left) and Murray Mason discuss the way forward for this compartment.

Martin, a dedicated and passionate forestry man, is still at the helm of Bracken Timbers today and is a very active and hands-on leader.

Although the focus is on forestry and sawmilling, Bracken Timbers is also involved in charcoal manufacturing, maize production (commercial and seed), soya beans, sugar cane and grapes.

Bracken's farms are situated in the hills around Greytown in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, close to traditional Zulu tribal lands where unemployment rates are high. Mindful of the reality around them, Bracken Timbers has adopted labour intensive methods in all their activities, including tree harvesting, as they believe they have a responsibility to create jobs. This bucks the trend in South African forestry with many growers increasingly opting for mechanised harvesting due to the 'problems' associated with employing a lot of labour.

This is just the first indication I got that Martin Hill and his co-directors have a strong people-oriented approach to their business. Another is their involvement in a neighbouring community forestry project – but more about that later.

The sawmill was commissioned in 1982, and Martin Hill has been buying farms that either already had timber growing on them, or had the potential to grow timber. They now have around 4 400 ha of pine which supplies two thirds of the sawmill's raw material needs. The balance of the timber comes from private farmers in the district.

"We have a core group of eight or nine farmers who supply us with saw logs," explained Bracken Timber's forestry director, Murray Mason. "In most cases we do all the harvesting work for them at cost, and transport the logs to the mill ourselves. We always try to put our growers first and take their timber even when the demand dips, and rather cut back the harvesting of our own timber," said Murray.

The long-term aim is to be as self-sufficient in timber as possible, as everyone knows that the biggest constraint in the sawmilling business in South Africa is the supply of raw materials.

The better sites at higher altitudes have been planted to Pinus patula, while the lower, more marginal sites are planted to P. eliottii.

The Greytown district is traditionally wattle country, and many of the farms already had wattle growing on them. Some of these have been converted to pine, but they have retained belts of wattle strategically placed between the pine blocks to act as buffers in the event of fires.

"We try to retain belts of wattle between the pine blocks from a strategic fire prevention point of view," said Murray. "The wattle also provides jobs for a lot of people."

The wattle timber is sold for pulp through NCT, and the bark is sold to the UCL factory at Dalton. Bracken Timbers has twice won the bark supplier of the year award presented by UCL.

The wattle timber unsuitable for pulp provides the raw material for the charcoal business, which is operated by a Dutch-owned company, Carbo Natal Productions.

All silviculture and harvesting is done in-house by motor-manual methods. They have two pine thinnings teams, two pine clearfelling teams, three wattle harvesting teams, one wattle thinning team and six silviculture teams.

Clearfelled timber is extracted by cable skidders and tractor-driven Iglund winches do the job for the thinnings operations.

Murray says that the teams are versatile and can be utilised in different operations, depending on the need. Many of their employees have been working for Bracken Timbers for years and as a result, a good working relationship has been established.

Typically, employees who show initiative can progress through the ranks from manual labourer to chainsaw operator, tractor driver, Bell logger operator to truck driver or supervisor. They prefer to provide their own employees with opportunities rather than recruit from outside.

The pine trees are harvested at between 28-30 years. Average MAIs are around 15 cubic metres per annum. Murray says he tries to avoid burning the slash after clearfelling, preferring to cut up the branches and tops and broadcasting them across the site.

Gary Schwarz is the Director in charge of the sawmill, which produces primarily structural timber for the building industry from an intake of 75 000 cubic metres of roundwood a year. They've recently built a new wetmill equipped with bandsaw technology and have state-of-the-art TFD kilns for drying the timber. Other state-of-the-art equipment, including an Opticut and edge optimisers, which have helped to improve recoveries by 3.5% to 4%.

Following the retirement of David Crickmay, who served as an external advisor to the Bracken Timbers Board of Directors on sawmilling issues for many years, they have recently secured the services of former York CEO Lance Cooper in a similar role.

In addition to the forestry/sawmilling business, there is around 300 ha under seed and commercial maize and soya beans, 550 ha of sugar cane and 15 ha of grape vines. Although the KZN midlands is a summer rainfall area, the grapes are doing well and Bracken Timbers even produced their own red wine in 2006. The Director in charge of Bracken's agricultural activities is Gordon le Roux. He also manages the transport for the whole group.

In line with the company's philosophy of sticking to what they know best, they have now leased out the vineyards to the Stables Winery in Nottingham Road who make the province's only wine of origin. The charcoal business is operated by an outside company for the same reason. Most of the charcoal produced is exported.

However, the labour for both operations is supplied by Bracken Timbers, who employ around 1 500 people in total.

"We are unashamedly labour intensive," Martin Hill told me. "We have fantastic people and we look after them.

"We have an employee council which is in office for two years and we meet monthly. We identify leaders there and all our supervisors have come through there. We believe in good communications and we keep everyone well informed," he said.

Community forestry project takes off

The Hill family has been farming in the Greytown district for generations. The family is deeply attached to the land and has a strong loyalty to the local communities. It is for these reasons that they have always opted for a labour-intensive approach, believing in the necessity of creating sustainable jobs rather than purchasing labour-replacing machines.

This people-oriented approach extends into the local communities from where their labour is sourced, and the Bracken Timbers team has 'adopted' a neighbouring community forestry project.

The community farm borders on the Bracken estate, and was bought by government some three years ago through the land restitution process and transferred to the successful claimants, the Izanqawe community. The land, comprising two farms previously owned by the Theunissen family and the Wessels family, total some 5 000 ha, of which roughly 240 ha is planted to pine and wattle.

After being approached by members of the community for help in setting up their forestry business, the Bracken Timbers team were happy to get involved. The Izanqawe Community Trust has legal ownership of the land, and Izanqawe Farming (Pty) Ltd. runs the business side of the operation. They have provided soft loans for the purchase of equipment such as chainsaws, and loaned the community a tractor/trailer unit at cost.

Murray's forestry team works very closely with the community which is led by the Chairman of the Trust, Thokozani Zondi, and Vice-Chairman, Patrick Dlamini. They drive through the plantations together on a regular basis and discuss the needs and priorities.

Izanqawe Farming employs 36 people, some of whom have attended training sessions run by Bracken Timbers. They do all their own maintenance and harvesting work in the wattle compartments, and have recently started pruning in the pine.

Bracken Timbers does the harvesting of the community's pine at cost, and the sawmill purchases the logs, just as they do for most of their growers.

Bracken Timbers' Director in charge of Administration, Martinus Steyn, assists the community with their admin and works closely with Patrick. When SA Forestry magazine visited, they were busy with their annual audit.

Murray explained that his team was providing a mentorship role with the aim of sharing their knowledge and experience, thereby assisting the community to run a successful forestry business.

"They are keen and willing to learn, and have already made significant progress," said Murray. "We are not providing them with a hand-out, we are giving them a hand-up," he said.

The last word belongs to Martin. "We really want them to succeed because we don't believe we can prosper in isolation."

That just about sums up the remarkable relationship between Bracken Timbers and the Izanqawe community. Judging by the immaculate young pine compartment that SA Forestry magazine visited and the excellent work they have done turning a wattle jungle into a productive stand, this looks like one land restitution project that has every chance of success.

The community dynamics are complex as they are bound to be when there are 165 members, all of whom want to receive benefits from owning the land. Thokozani told me that the biggest challenge faced by the Trust is managing people's expectations, but so far they are maintaining the discipline required to ensure that the business is sustainable.

In this regard, good communications and transparency is the key.

"Transparency is everything," concluded Thokozani. "We show them how we spend the money. It's working well for us."

Published in April 2010

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