In 100 years of Bone Timber, the business’s succession plans and resilience stand out.

Life is unfairly complicated. South Australian industry stalwart Bone Timber is celebrating its centenary this year. By any standard, it’s a mammoth achievement for a family business, and one that other companies have doffed their caps to – AKD Softwoods was the first but not the last of Bone’s suppliers to recommend TTN run a feature on the company.

Started as a family business by Stanley Howard Bone and his father George in 1919, the business was passed on to Stan’s son, Lloyd, then to his son, Howard, and finally to Andrew, Howard’s son. In each case across the five generations, a father and son team worked together, with the younger man taking over management and the older providing mentoring and support.

And then in March last year, Andrew Bone died at the absurdly young age of 49.

“It’s a bloody tragedy,” says Howard. “In fact, we haven’t really made a big deal about our 100 years, because we just don’t feel up to making a big song and dance about it. I think we’re still grieving.”

Yet the business itself is still going strong. Howard has stepped back into management, but, as he says, “There’s nobody in the fifth generation now to run the business. And so that’s a brand-new challenge.”

Starting out

Bone Timber’s story starts in the early 20th century. George and his wife Harriet had six children, and the second, Stan, had a dream to emigrate to South Australia to escape the cold, wet British winters. In 1910 he finally convinced his parents to give him permission and he worked his passage across to Melbourne then caught the train to Adelaide.

Soon after his elder sister Maude arrived to keep an eye on him, and their letters home were so enthusiastic, George and Harriet packed up the rest of the family. They arrived in 1912, with Stan getting his father a job alongside him at Reid Brothers Timber firm in Port Adelaide. Both men were accomplished carpenters and joiners.

George planned to open a timber yard, but World War I broke out before he could. Stan got married and Lloyd was born in 1915. When the war ended, Stan was keen to work with his father, setting up their business as joiners. Geo. J. Bone & Sons was formed in 1919.

Their first contract was building wood and iron houses for returned servicemen as part of the Thousand Homes Project at Colonel Light Gardens. Using the large property around the family home on Maria Street in Edwardstown to stack timber and build a joinery shop and mill (plus two more Bone brothers, Len and Gordon) they grew the business throughout the 1920s.

“And then the Depression hit,” Howard says. “They went from 26 guys to five or six.”

Years later Lloyd would write a book about the business, A Family Affair, using Stan’s notes and his own recollections. In it, Stan tells of having a friend at the Bank of Adelaide who thought he could organise an overdraft to give Bone Timber the capital it needed after multiple customers defaulted on debts, if Stan could provide sufficient collateral. “So I showed him the half a million super feet of Oregon timber we had in the yard, and we had the money to keep trading,” Stan wrote.

George died in 1930, and around that time, Stan and his brothers negotiated to buy a property on nearby South Road, which was a more central location. The terms were five years and no interest. It was paid off within three and opened for trading in 1932, with both sites being used for a time to keep work coming in.

The family worked through the hard years  and had begun to expand again when World War II began. “We were losing men to the war effort, and both my father and Uncle Doug were enlisted,” Howard says. “My grandfather said ‘Well, I can’t work without men,’ and they had some Defence contracts, so he was able to keep his sons and get some tyres and a little bit of fuel to run the trucks. It kept the business going until after the war, when they were able to re-establish themselves as timber merchants.”

Handing over

Post WWII, Lloyd took over the running of the business. “He was a very good joiner,” says Howard, “with excellent timber knowledge and he was very serious and capable about the business side of things.”

As was family tradition, Stan stayed on to help Lloyd: “We’ve always had a family manager and a family mentor,” Howard says. “My great grandfather was a mentor to my grandfather and my grandfather was a mentor to my father.

“The other thing that happened in our business, which is I think the one reason we’re still here, is that when the new manager took over from the old manager, he also took over the chequebook. Many family businesses will say they’re third-generation, but when you actually look at them, Grandpa’s still got the chequebook. They’re really still first generation and they often fail, because they’re not prepared to pass that whole business to the next generation.”

In the Bone family, fathers provided experience and advice, and sometimes had some choice words when the sons decided against it, but the choice always lay with the new manager. With Lloyd, the business was once again able to grow in size and scope.

His strong business ability helped to build the customer base and by the time Howard was in Year 10, Lloyd was encouraging him to leave school. “But my mother fought for me to stay on to Year 12. Dad left school much earlier, and his dad had to go to work earlier still. That may be why I was determined my son and daughter would have a tertiary education, which led to Andrew qualifying as an accountant.”

Having been working in the timber yard during holidays since his early teens, Howard fitted in easily. “My grandfather was still alive and he and my father thought I should have an understanding of all parts of the trade. I went from working on the bench to spindles, saws and planers, to driving trucks, dealing with customers and, ultimately, working on the computer. I’ve been fortunate to have that wide range.

“When I was about 21, I was working on the big circular saws. They were quite challenging, and I was big and powerful – six foot two and in the vicinity of 90 to 100kg. The other people in the yard didn’t want to lose me to the office. But I was playing football then and I broke my ankle, so straight into the office it was.”

Howard inherited his father’s passion for good timber and added his own concerns about sustainability. “We actually chose who we bought from, not what price they had,” Howard says. “We were buying from people who were reputable. And we still deal with most of those today.”

He travelled the world – Canada, South East Asia, the US and more – to source good product that came from companies that treated their resources and their staff appropriately. “My wife always laughs, because people say to her, ‘Oh, you’ve been to lots of places,’ and she’s ‘Yes, but if it doesn’t have trees, we don’t go.’”

On one trip to the Philippines in the early 1980s, Howard and his wife, Ann, travelling with David Eldridge of Ridgewood Timber, were almost kidnapped by a group of Communist insurgents. “They had taken over this town we were getting timber from,” he says. “We were trying to exit the whole affair but had contracts we had to honour. And so we went there to sort it all out. The Communists decided they were going to hold us ransom to help save a Catholic priest, Father Gore, who was in jail on trumped-up charges of being involved in the murder of a ruthless mayor.

“We escaped by the skin of our teeth. And the joke was: would my father have paid the ransom? And most probably the answer was no!”

Old and new

Other innovations were much less stressful. After Howard married in 1964, he and Ann had dreamed of restoring an old house. But they couldn’t afford one, so they bought a block of land and built a replica instead.

“We wanted old architraves and skirtings,” Howard says, “and, being pretty nosy, I went looking around the old parts of the factory and found the old knives and shapes, they used to use. I decided to start replicating and selling those.”

The range of heritage mouldings grew with the trend for house restoration in following decades. As Howard took over the running of the business, he and his cousin Christopher Bone – Doug’s son – also rebuilt the sheds, which had originally been erected using whatever second-hand materials were available. “In those days I told everybody that I dragged the business out of the ’40s into the ’80s,” he says.

Through the 80s and 90s, the shape of the factory changed, with kiln-dried timber requiring undercover storage and an increase in people picking up orders requiring a reworking of the layout to separate trucks and foot traffic. In more recent years, engineered product has required careful racking.

Howard’s son Andrew joined the firm in the 90s and started to put his stamp on the wider industry as well, ending up as chairman of the South Australian TABMA management committee. Andrew furthered the company’s sustainability goals, adding a briquette product line to use up their waste.

“Because we’re in an urban area with housing nearby, we couldn’t burn our waste,” Howard says. “And dumping it cost a fortune. He pointed out that since we were using kiln-dried timber, we had the ideal resource to make briquettes. We produce them year round and sell over the winter months. If I brought us into the 80s, he brought us into the 2000s.”

Andrew took over the role of managing director at Bone and Howard stepped back to become chairman, giving him more time for other pursuits such as the company’s support of local cricket and wood chopping competitions and his lifelong passion for rowing (he represented South Australia as a Kings Cup oarsman in the 1960s).

And then it was last year.

Finding a way forward

“I don’t want our story to be a sad story,” Howard says. “In fact, the thing that guilts me a little bit is that I’ve actually had a lot of fun since I’ve come back. And that wouldn’t have happened if my son had lived. But if I had the choice, I’d be happy to swap with him.”

The close-knit family rallied round Howard and Ann, including their daughter, Susie, and son-in-law, David; Andrew’s wife, Georgia; and Christopher and his wife, Julie and son, Jarrod. “Without that support, I couldn’t go on this challenge of trying to continue the business,” says Howard.

“We’ve thought of all options, including selling the business or winding it down. One of my main concerns is the people that we’ve employed. They’re highly skilled and much respected workers. And to put them in the hands of somebody else who might throw them out in the street is absolutely not on the agenda.”

The senior management team also came to the aid of the family and have worked closely with Howard to keep the business running smoothly while decisions are made. “We’re going down that track of saying, let’s give it a crack,” Howard says. “I mean, too many people look for soft options under crisis. I’ve deliberately not tried to make a decision while this mourning process is going on, because your emotions are very skewed. But I’ve also had the experience to say that emotion doesn’t fix anything. Practicality and common sense is the approach we’ve got to take. One of Mark Twain’s best sayings was ‘The problem with common sense is it ain’t that common.’ So we’re keeping our feet on the ground and seeing how things are going on a monthly to yearly basis: we’ll either succeed or not.”

The challenge has been made easier by two longstanding Bone traditions. The first is a genuine expertise in both timber product and use. There’s a high level of skilled trade backgrounds among employees and timbers are sourced with a view to being the best product available, rather than just price. “As an industry, we need to make sure we’re selling product that does the job, and that is grown properly, which includes the way the people in the supply chain are treated,” says Howard.

The second is a genuine commitment to staff. Their welfare is prioritised and there is a culture of flexibility and support, one that becomes patently clear when you hear how committed employees are to keeping the company going. Externally, it is working: Bone Timber is a 2019 finalist in the National TABMA Awards for best Timber Merchant.

“I spent my first 20 years in the business making sure I didn’t fail,” Howard says. “Now, several months ago, when I was wondering ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I was listening to the radio. This guy was talking about retirement, and he had a heart attack. He ended up saying the thing that saved him was he started to have a few decent hobbies.

“So I thought to myself, well, if I can treat my role in the business as a serious hobby, where I can impart my knowledge and support the people that we’ve empowered, then we might have a chance.

“I say that sincerely. I’m not saying that we’re going to succeed. Everyone would like to think we’re going to succeed, and I’m very happy with their attitude of positiveness. But in reality, we will need things to go right. I’ll teach what I can, though I think sometimes learning is as much about finding out what you don’t want to do as what you do.”

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Image: (Left to right) Christopher, Andrew and Howard Bone in 2008.