Peter Duncan is someone you would describe as an ‘industry gem’ in so many ways. The son of the late Hon. Fred Duncan – who was the founder of the now Boral-owned public company Duncan’s Holdings Ltd. – his name has been synonymous with the timber industry in New South Wales (NSW) for his entire life.
Sitting with Peter, now the Owner of Peter Duncan’s Timber, he opens a window into the transformative years for the Australian timber industry as a whole, the state-of-affairs of the industry today, and what may be ahead of us.
Leaving school at 16, Peter was a young man from NSW, and like many his age in 1954, would start his working life almost immediately.
With a yearning to get on the land, he worked in the farming sector for roughly nine years, before being urged to join his father Fred in the family business.
“Dad’s old Finance Director got in my ear…he said ‘Hey, what are you doing? You should be there helping your father!’, and by the second time he spoke to me about it, I agreed,” he recalled.
Leaving his role as Manager of a cattle property in the upper-north town of Casino, NSW, Peter exclaimed that his early working life on the land “taught me to grow up in five minutes!”, and that he had no business background prior to getting into the timber industry.
TURNING TO TIMBER
To this day, Peter fondly recalls those early days on the land, saying it shaped him into the man he went on to be, and that he never regretted it.
In 1963 he joined his father in the timber industry working under the sales brand GA Duncan, owned by Duncan’s Holdings Ltd., not knowing the journey that was ahead of him.
“The first thing I did was go out with our bush boss for the logging side of things, which was between Casino and Tenterfield (NSW) in a very big area of forest known as the Unumgar State Forest,” Peter said.
The early years of work in the timber industry for Peter were diverse to say the least. With time spent across the three saw mills that his father’s company owned, to working at an old steam mill in Malanganee, to being thrown into the deep end and managing a saw mill nearby, before his wife Evelyn fell gravely ill, meaning they would end up moving back to Sydney to work in the corporate sector.
A CHANGING TIDE
After Duncan’s Holdings Ltd. was sold to Boral in early 1992, Peter was asked by the new owners to stay on – a decision Peter later regretted, leaving shortly after.
“After only two months, I just didn’t feel comfortable,” he remembers.
“The whole way of doing things was different to the way we had – and I thought, “˜Well, I’m not going to stay and get an ulcer here!’ “
And with that, Peter Duncan’s Timber, and a new chapter in the family’s history within the timber industry, was born.
A NAME FOR TRADE
By that point, the Duncan family name epitomised the timber industry in New South Wales.
Well-known, instantly recognised by the industry and reflective of multi-generation ownership, Peter Duncan set out on his own and luckily, his independence from the now Boral-owned Duncan’s Holdings Ltd. was embraced.
“I left the company on the Friday, and by the Monday people were calling me at Boral only to be told I had left! But they persevered and by the end of that very Monday itself I already had three former clients wanting to do business,” Peter exclaimed.
“I thought “˜thank goodness I’m not going to have to eat bangers and mash every night!’ and it’s just gone on from there,”
Today, Peter’s company has been running for 22 illustrious years, with seven full-time employees and a range of family members and relatives involved in the management and administration of the business. One thing is for sure: the Duncan family name has continued to be the strongest card in Peter’s success and business values.
It’s easy to see how Peter has remained true to himself – from his early and hardy days on the land to today.
Today, Peter’s family work alongside him, bringing them together in both family and business. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Being a service dominated business (as Peter describes it), eventually the work load began to take an immeasurable toll on him, and it didn’t take long for his son Nick to step in to help.
“Nick, my youngest son, saw me struggling – and I really was – the workload was becoming impossible, he said “˜Oh dad, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep going like this, and he was right,” Peter recalls.
Nick Duncan has now been with the company for 16 years, and his brother David joined them in 2011 as a relative newcomer to the industry, keen to also assist his father maintain the Duncan legacy within the local timber industry.
Peter’s wife Evelyn also works within the family business, running the administration and financial side of things with assistance from their niece, Jane.
Initially the business started as a ‘sawmill agent’, essentially providing independently owned and operated sawmills who didn’t encompass a distribution process with access to the wider timber merchant industry but has evolved into a timber wholesale business, marketing and distributing products for some of the largest hardwood producers in the country. This is a process that works for Peter due to his strong network and relationships with the merchant industry from Victoria, ACT and NSW.
AN INTERESTING FUTURE
“It’s a very competitive industry with the rise of corporate hardware giants Bunnings and Masters and the influx of imported timbers. You have to be on the ball the whole time. You can’t stop change, all you can do is focus on what you do, and do it well”.
“It’s an interesting time for the timber industry, and especially sawmills, as we look forward,” Peter added.
He notes that the future for independent timber merchants across Australia will also be a fascinating one to watch.
“Some independents merchants will get ‘swallowed up’ by the larger companies out there, but the good ones will continue to live on, and I’ve spoken to many people in the industry about this topic.
“My own gut feeling is that the despite all the challenges the timber industry is facing, family owned and operated businesses, whether they be timber mills, timber merchants or timber wholesalers (like us), will continue to succeed provided the second and third generation have the same passion for the business as the generation before them,” Peter explained.
I think the wonderful relationships we have developed with both suppliers and customers during our many years in business will hopefully keep us in business long after I kick the bucket”,
he said with a laugh.
It’s a timely observation from an industry legend, as well as a father and husband, who believes in the potential for family-owned businesses to thrive not only today, but for many years to come.