John Stewart feels as though he has come full circle. His very first job involved timber – he planted pine trees up the side of a hill with his father in a very remote part of Western Australia. He has since enjoyed a successful career across a number of industries, including packaging, logistics, information management, concrete and quarries, and now finds himself at the helm of Simmonds Lumber.
“I’m pretty happy where I’ve found myself,” he says. “I’m a firm believe that people make the organisation, that people make the industry, and the quality and the values of the industry determine how much you like the industry you work in. It determines how good your fit is with the industry as well. I do feel like I’ve ‘come home’ in some sense, because there are lots of people around here who share the same values as me.”
Since his appointment in August last year, Stewart has set about making key changes to help improve growth, product development and customer service.
“I’m a firm believer in having the right people working on the right opportunities,” he says. “One of the big changes that we’ve made is being able to attract, as well as maintain some very talented people. An example of that is our CFO, who’s new to the organisation. He was very senior in Ernst & Young, and he’s got very deep experience in mergers and acquisitions, so he has the perfect skill set to support our plans for growth.
“Making sure that we’ve got the right, most talented people in the industry seems to be something that Simmonds is known for.”
The company has also done a lot of work “back office” on its processes and systems.
“The reason why we’ve done that is that it’s imperative for us that Simmonds is as fit as possible, so we’re in the best position to provide for our customers for many years to come,” Stewart says. “It’s almost like earning the right to grow – in order to earn the right to grow you need to be lean and operating effectively, and you need to be relevant to your customers as well.
“We’ve also worked pretty hard to identify and secure some new products that’ll assist us to grow and, although we haven’t launched them yet, it isn’t very far away, so we’re quite excited about our next milestone.”
Don’t wait, innovate
One of Simmonds’ most innovative products is DNA Lumber, a product which uses DNA technology to certify the legality and provenance of timber imported from Indonesia.
“This is unique to us, and it’s actually one of the reasons I joined Simmonds,” Stewart says. “We are the first company in the world to use DNA technology to prove the legality of Merbau. For me that exemplifies what I would call the intrepid spirit of our organisation, and that is something that really needs to continue.
“Being the first company in the world to pioneer this technology was a watershed moment for us. It’s a while ago now – back in 2008 I think it was – but that spirit still exists in our company. It also says a lot about our values as a company as well. We think that legality is really important, and an important and first major step towards sustainability.”
Stewart is a self-professed fan of using technology to make a difference, and this has been recognised. The environment minister recently invited him to sit on the private sector round table as part of the Asia Pacific Rainforest Recovery Plan.
“I think that’s a direct reflection of Simmonds’ pioneering pedigree in helping to protect forests,” Stewart says. “We’ve still got some more work to do in this space, but we’re very grateful to our customers, who effectively demonstrate that they share our values when they buy DNA Lumber.”
What next for Simmonds?
Stewart is proud of the work that Simmonds has done thus far, but the key to any successful business is to always be asking – what next?
“You’re only as relevant as the last thing you’ve done, and we’ve got some great ideas on how to use better technology in this space,” he says. “The key challenge for any organisation or industry is to remain relevant and I think that’s no different with the timber industry.
“I think probably the key areas for growth or what we need to focus on next as an industry – and certainly from a Simmonds perspective – is embracing technology and innovation. I think a lot about the way that we do things and the fact that some of our products have not changed for many years – decades even. So there are some really wonderful opportunities for using product innovation as well as service innovation and using technology as an enabler to give our customers more value.
“The timber industry is ripe with opportunity to leverage innovation and leverage technology. I think it really comes down to a willingness on the part of the individuals and the industry as a whole to want to do that. I think that’s the big difference about Simmonds – we’ve demonstrated a willingness to do that. The key is to do more of it and to do it more regularly, as you can’t rest on your laurels.”
At the heart of Simmonds’ strategic intent is being an injury-free place to work. Simmonds also has a strong track record of being a market leader and an employer of choice
“We will grow against this backdrop,” Stewart says. “Simmonds has great credentials and a strong and recognised brand in the industry. Our success will depend on our ability to leverage that and get closer to our suppliers and customers to deliver an up-to-date and relevant range of quality products.
“This approach will enable us to grow organically, but we are also looking at acquisitions where they make sense. We have earned the right to be in business by having an operating base as strong as it’s ever been. Our challenge is to leverage this base to grow profitably so that we can be the right choice in wholesale timber for many years to come.”