A great gentleman of the trade, Peter Duncan passed away on Tuesday 9 October, 2015. Here, we remember him.
It’s often said that we do not die until no-one speaks our name. If that’s the true definition of immortality on Earth, then the late Peter Duncan of Peter Duncan’s Timber is here for a long, celebrated time yet
“He was truly a gentleman of the old school,” says Andy Mineur of Urban Salvage.
“Peter was a lovely man,” says Kevin King of H R King & Son. “He knew so much about timber and would freely share that knowledge with retailers to help builders.”
“I met Peter in 1983, when I worked with him at what was then becoming Duncan’s Sawmills”, says Roy Edwards of Pennwick Pty Ltd, who, together with Tony Walton, delivered an obituary at Peter’s funeral.
“Duncan’s Holdings took over the operation at Tumbarumba and it was my introduction to a man who would become a great friend.
“When I later set up my own business, I became a customer of his, and have been for the last 15 years. He was as reliable, knowledgeable and helpful a timber seller as he was a person.”
The fact that they had met with Roy as an employee of Peter’s family business was no barrier to the friendship forming between the two men.
“Most people assume that Peter was born into a privileged situation and found it easy to get into the industry, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Roy says. “When he was just a teenager he went to work as a jackaroo out in the bush. It was hard, demanding work and he stuck at it for years, advancing through the roles before he eventually came back to the city.”
There was no sense of Peter being ‘the boss’s son’, as Roy put it in his obituary: “Meeting the new ‘Head Office’ staff for the first time can be a daunting task, even though Tony had 10 years on me, we were both met with the same warm greeting from Gentleman Peter and ‘The Boss’, John Duncan known as Jinks.
“Softly spoken, with a deep, resonant voice; Peter never raised his voice even in frustration, and with Tony there was plenty of reason to raise his voice. Not with me, of course, I was always a saint.
“We never really knew what Peter’s real job was: he was the front man and sometimes the fall man for the sale of Duncan’s Hardwood. It was the policy of Duncan’s to allow the local mill managers to sell directly to their customers and what they could not sell became Pete’s responsibility…
“Not an easy job selling the dregs from each mill, but Peter, much to his credit never lost his cool … We cannot go past Peter’s ‘sale of the century’. Yes, the big one! He got the order to supply all the furniture timber, parquetry flooring and hand rail material for the new Parliament House. He was ecstatic; you could not wipe the smile off his face. Nothing was a problem, if he was asked an uncomfortable question he would sort of jig, hunch his shoulders and give you what I call ‘the Peter Grin’. Unquestionably; the biggest asset a sales person could have, and he had it in spades.
“How could you go crook on him for picking the eyes out of your stock, leaving you with unrecoverable off cuts and all the time being told, ‘But Fellows, it’s for Parliament House!’
“… If we ever made any money out of that It would have been a miracle; when the parquetry was laid someone with spikes walked over the floor leaving imprints everywhere!
“Peter had to rectify it … Just to get van with the replacement parquetry across the union line, the driver had to join the Transport Workers union, then he had to join the Building Workers Union and the Shop Fitters Union. Thank heavens he was already in the Timber Workers Union.
“All good fun – and if you can picture Peter sitting there saying, ‘I hope Jinks is all right with this’, you can just imagine the pressure.”
Roy also shared the successes that kept Duncan’s timber at the forefront of the industry, along with Peter’s delight in keeping up with old friends and new toys in his obituary: “Tony and I have remained in touch with Peter, Tony through his birthday April 1st, and me as a customer. Peter and I decided some years ago that we would make the trip Taree once a year and buy Tony lunch for his birthday…
“The first few times we used my Ranger ute; the last two, I used my new red convertible Mustang. Well, that made Peter’s day, especially when Tony with his accountant’s hat on gave us both stick about having too much money.
“Peter enjoyed the ride so much that he announced that he had made mind up to buy a “Tin Top” Mustang. Peter placed his order and on just about every occasion I rang the office; Peter would go over the latest developments and all he could talk about was going to see Tony next April driving his new Mustang.
“Peter came up to our place for Father’s Day lunch in the Mustang and talked about the things he couldn’t work out, especially how to open the bonnet? It’s is located on the left-hand side of the fire wall, part of which was not relocated for the right-hand drive. Sitting in the driver’s seat Pete simply said in his deep voice, ‘Well I’ll be!’
“During lunch we talked of many things but mostly about the look on Tony’s face when we turned up in the new Silver Mustang. He made sure I was sworn to secrecy but, unfortunately, Tony is learning about it today and not next April.
“Rest in Peace Peter, a true Australian timber man.”
At the funeral, tributes were plentiful, including a beautiful memorial from Peter’s son Nick who spoke of his father’s immense resilience, good humour and great love for his family, his friends, the industry and all his customers.
In the midst of personal recollections, Nick summed up his father’s legacy: “I think everyone could learn something from Dad. He was as honest as the day is long and his word was his bond. He didn’t have an easy life, but he certainly had a wonderful life and he improved the lives of everyone who was fortunate enough to know him.”
Peter is survived by his four children and 10 grandchildren. “Peter’s wife, Evelyn, died two years ago, almost to the day, and he missed her deeply,” Roy says. “He would say to me, ‘At home, every room I go into, I can still smell her perfume.’” Now they are no longer apart.
The following is an edited version of the story first run in the March 2015 edition of Timber Trader News. Several colleagues asked that this article be reprinted as a tribute. Peter is missed by all in the industry who knew him.
A life well grown
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 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 – like many his age in 1954 – would start his working life almost immediately, but not in the established Duncan business.
Instead, 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,” Peter says.
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. His last role there was as manager of a cattle property in the upper-north town of Casino, NSW.
Peter said that this early working life on the land “taught me to grow up in five minutes!” Despite his farm experience, he had no formal business background prior to getting into the timber industry.
TURNING TO TIMBER
In 1963, he joined his father in the timber industry working under the sales brand GA Duncan, owned by Duncan’s Holdings Ltd.
“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 says.
The early years of work in the timber industry for Peter were excitingly diverse. From time spent across the three sawmills 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, it was a hands-on business baptism, and Peter thrived. But when his wife, Evelyn, fell gravely ill, they let go of the regional lifestyle and moved back to Sydney to work in the corporate sector.
A CHANGING TIDE
New decades brought more dramatic changes. 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.
At that point, the Duncan family name had epitomised the timber industry in New South Wales for decades. The challenge
for Peter was to hold onto the recognition while differentiating himself from the now Boral-owned Duncan’s Holdings Ltd.
He described it as a risk, but, luckily, his independence was quickly embraced. Well-known, instantly recognised by and well-liked within the industry, Peter found himself being sought after by the many customers who appreciated the knowledge and traditions that came with his multi-generation timber experience.
“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 said.
“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 successful 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, but now that strength is based in Peter’s own career and character.
There is a core of integrity and passion for work that has remained consistent with Peter – from his early, hardy days on the land to today – and it becomes quickly apparent to those who meet him.
Today, several members of Peter’s family work closely alongside him at Peter Duncan’s Timber in Sydney’s leafy North Shore suburb of Turramaurra, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
While he initially shouldered the load alone, being a service-dominated business (as Peter describes it), decades of an extensive and high-pressure workload began to take a significant toll on him. 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,” Peter said.
“He worried – ‘Oh Dad, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep going like this’, and he was right,” Peter admits.
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, but keen to 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 business model that is made smoother by Peter’s strong network and solid relationships with the merchant industry from Victoria, the ACT and NSW.
The climate has changed dramatically from his early days in timber and his father’s time. Peter says, “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.”
AN INTERESTING FUTURE
“It’s an interesting time for the timber industry, and especially sawmills, as we look forward,” Peter says.
He adds that the future for independent timber merchants across Australia will also be a fascinating one to watch as customers decide which values they appreciate and need most out of pricing, experience, convenience and expertise.
“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 added, 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.”
The original text of this story was written by TTN Founding Publisher Greg King, who caught up with Peter and his family to discuss the Duncan name and its role in Australia’s timber industry.