Tribute to Piet van Zyl, CEO of York Timbers

Pieter “Piet” van Zyl, who passed away from Covid-19 on 17 July 2021, was CEO of solid wood products group York Timbers, which was listed on the JSE in 1946 and celebrated its centenary in 2016.

Piet held BSc (Agric) and BSc (Agric Economics) (Hons) degrees from the University of Pretoria, and completed his MBL through the University of South Africa. He was appointed CEO of York Timbers, the largest solid wood processor in SA, to “steer York through the changing economic environment,” according to the notice announcing his appointment in April 2009. He certainly did that.

Piet took over the helm of the company during a challenging time. York had posted an 83% decline in earnings for the six months ended December 31, 2008, with a worldwide economic crisis resulting in a decline in demand for sawn timber and increased log inventories. The group had suspended its acquisitions programme and slowed down its replanting programme.

According to an obituary issued by York a few days ago, Piet “won the respect of colleagues and employees for his commitment to York, his passion for everything that he did and for his unwavering kindness and integrity. Piet led York through some difficult periods with insight, decisiveness and courage and he leaves a legacy of a thriving business that is so much richer for his leadership.”
Piet was a visionary who was passionate about the improvement of the forestry and sawmilling sector. He started and drove numerous initiatives and research programmes that have transformed and enriched commercial forestry in South Africa.

Friend and colleague, Eric Droomer, says: “Piet was a unique individual who made an instant and lasting impression. His family was his first priority although he maintained absolute focus on York because the company was also important to him. He was passionate about the trees, the environment, the processing and the wood but his overwhelming passion was in developing the youth. His passion was infectious and many young foresters and sawmillers in and outside of South Africa will say they are pursuing their dreams thanks to Piet. He believed strongly in the application of technology and invested in applied research within the business by setting up links with universities and institutes outside of York. Piet was never happy with the status quo and was forever striving to make York bigger and stronger. He had a vision for not only the company but also for the southern continent and firmly believed that forestry had only begun to fulfill its potential as a key economic driver for the region. He felt a strong responsibility to the community around the York operations. His passion when not working was mountain biking and the forests were his playground. Piet could be the life and soul of a meeting or a party – always present and living life to the fullest! He will be missed by all of us.”

Piet was a great driver for modernising and upskilling at York. Under his guidance, York upgraded their plywood mill to the tune of around R400-million. He also introduced state of the art mechanical harvesting in the Highveld. Thereafter, he started a logistics company to improve company efficiencies. Piet understood in-depth the cycle from seed to market. To strength York’s position and improve customer experience, he established warehouses in all the large centres to provide better and faster service to customers.

Piet had a strong belief in research and development and York was one of the founding members of Forest Operations Research at Stellenbosch. He believed that the future of wood is in engineered wood-building materials and this led to the establishment of a multi-disciplinary Chair at the University of Pretoria (UP) that is data-driven and is focused on wood structural engineering for a sustainable build environment and African bio-economy.

He supported the long-term goal of addressing climate change by deploying site-species matching that entailed planting appropriate species and matching it with suitable temperatures and soil conditions. He also understood the importance of tree breeding, genetics, and genome selection to improve the quality of future plantations and supported this with York joining the Forest Molecular Genetics platform at the University of Pretoria.

Commented Michael Peter, Chief Executive of Forestry South Africa: “Piet was not only an icon in our sector but also spearheaded a number of exciting initiatives that will benefit the sector for years to come. He was an avid supporter of FSA and his contributions to our association and our industry will be sorely missed.” 

Piet is survived by his wife Hendriette, and their daughters, Jo-Mari and Lehandri. The community of Sabie and corporate South Africa, especially the forestry sector, have lost an extraordinary person and an honourable, inspirational leader.

BIG trees have fallen

By Chris Chapman

The passing of three forestry icons within days of each other has rocked the South African forestry industry to the core. News of the passing of Jaap Steenkamp, Piet van Zyl and Benno Krieg has come as a shock to stakeholders already struggling to keep the wheels of business turning in the wake of civil unrest in KZN and Gauteng and a country-wide Level 4 lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All three are well known and respected leaders in the forestry sector who take with them a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Jaap fulfilled so many roles, but was perhaps best known for establishing and leading the SA Forestry Contractors Association for over three decades. He was also a well loved lecturer in the NMU forestry programme, businessman, inventor and developer of innovative pitting and planting equipment now widely used across South Africa and beyond.

Benno was a very knowledgeable and capable forest engineer who was largely responsible for transitioning Komatiland Forests’ forestry operations from motor-manual to fully mechanised systems, and went on to make an impact at Bostek and Hitachi.

Piet van Zyl was CEO of York Timbers, a leading, integrated forestry business with extensive plantations and sawmill operations in Mpumalanga.

I didn’t know Piet personally but have listened to him speak at forestry functions and field days over the past few years, and he always demonstrated a deep understanding of the issues, challenges and opportunities facing the forest sector, and struck me as being a solutions-oriented person with a ‘can-do’ attitude. In addition to his role at York he played a leadership role within the wider industry environment.

Back in the pre-COVID days when we still had forestry field days, symposiums and conferences, one couldn’t help but notice Jaap and Benno. They were both very knowledgeable and always had a lot to say about almost every aspect of forestry. They were often the ones asking presenters searching questions that helped us get to the heart of the matter, keeping everyone on their toes in the process.

All three of these guys have made a huge contribution to the development of the forest sector in South Africa, and the benefits of their work will continue to reverberate through the industry for many years to come. They had so much knowledge and experience, and thankfully have passed some of that knowledge on to others who will continue the good work.

Our heartfelt condolences go out to their families, friends and colleagues.

Three big trees have fallen in the forest.