A focus on quality and relationships underpins the company’s growth from its Brisbane roots.
There are multiple paths to success. One of the most difficult to choose is through a commitment to quality ahead of all else, especially in timber supply, where the competition often focuses on price. When Chris Woodhouse, who had originally trained as a bricklayer, started his own business in 1983, he very quickly realised that was the path he wanted to take.
“I’d hate to add up how much timber we’ve sold, but it would be hundreds of millions of metres,” Chris says. “And our callback rate is low enough for me to call it zero. We don’t spend a lot of our time going out on calls to fix up jobs, because we don’t get callbacks.”
This focus on reliability has been at the heart of Woodhouse Timber Company since its start, and is a key reason for the growth that has seen the business expand from its small Brisbane warehouse origins to distribution centres across Australia.
Now with a second-generation of Woodhouses at the helm, the company is continuing to grow. Over 40 years, that commitment to quality has remained consistent. We talked with Chris and Mark Woodhouse about educating their market to see the value in quality, plus how to manage change while keeping a consistent culture.
“I was working for a famous old Queensland company called Wilkinson Timber Industries,” says Chris. “I was a sales manager when they decided not to service the reseller market any more; they wanted to stick with builders. I knew they were missing a market.
“Over a short period of time, I found some willing suppliers in New Zealand and set up in business. Those original suppliers were three brothers and their father. Only one of those brothers survives, now we’re dealing with the kids. It’s 40 years we’ve been with that firm. They’re like family.”
Chris’s wife Kay came on board to manage everything for the new company that wasn’t sales or delivery. “I saw a lot of opportunity in the resale market with all these little hardware stores around the place,” Chris says.
Woodhouse’s first products were dressed timbers, mainly interior mouldings, similar to what had been sold at Wilkinson’s. “There, we had been concerned, because it was meranti rainforest timber,” says Chris. “One of the benefits of joining up with the Kiwis was we immediately switched to plantation timber. Environmentally, we knew that was going to be the bee’s knees down the track, and so it’s proved to be.”
Of course, now they were no longer using hardwoods, the timbers needed to be finger jointed, and the technology was still in its infancy. Chris says, “You’d watch someone with a brush painting glue onto a joint in those days. Our suppliers have heavily invested in machinery improvements over time, now it happens within a split second but with perfect accuracy – it’s incredible.”
Woodhouse quickly developed its own distinctive products. The first and still the most famous was Weatherproof, an H3-treated range of exterior FSC-certified radiata pine timbers, all pre-primed in eye-catching pink Weatherproof paint.
“There’s a simple story behind the pink,” says Chris. “Back then, if you wanted to use a piece of timber externally, you had to prime it and the primer was pink. It was just known as external timber. I thought, let’s paint our timber pink, because that’s what it is: external timber.”
The LOSP treatment is done by the manufacturers to Australian standards, with regular testing by Woodhouse. Treatment is done to H3 levels rather than the more commonplace H2: “We decided on the higher rating to get a better product,” says Chris, “and because there are areas of the country where users need it.”
Weatherproof readily found its audience. The boards were lighter than the hardwood that then dominated the market, straight, ready to be painted and highly durable. The feedback from their customers’ builder clients was enthusiastic, though the hardware stores themselves had different reasons for liking it.
Chris says, “Some of our customers saw the sustainability aspect, but most were more interested in the stock control side. When you bought mouldings previously, you’d buy a bundle of 50m. The 0.9m and 1.2m pieces were left in your rack, so you’d have about 15-20% waste. One of our big selling factors was you buy 20 pieces, you sell 20 pieces. It would have been about three or four years into it, that the sustainability aspect caught on, and it’s been on a roll since then.”
GROWTH AND CHANGE
Within a few years, Woodhouse grew into a larger Brisbane location, then expanded into Sydney, then Melbourne and beyond.
Now the team numbers fluctuate between 90 and 100 staff members and Chris’ son Mark Woodhouse has stepped into the role of CEO. “Succession is always going to be complex,” says Chris, “But it’s a fact I’ve faced. I’m 72 now; when I was 60, I started thinking about the future.”
A couple of Chris’ children who were already working for Woodhouse opted for management roles. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve transitioned out and they’ve moved in,” Chris says. “In the last five years I’ve not been involved with a lot of the major decisions, which was a part of the process. It’s been pretty seamless.”
Accordingly, Drew Woodhouse is now the chief operating officer alongside Mark as CEO. “I think to say that I was drawn towards timber probably wouldn’t be accurate, but I was definitely drawn towards business,” Mark says. “And you don’t get too many opportunities to go into an established family business. So a few things fell in place.
“I was very fortunate, I’ve been running it for about seven years now. And Dad’s always been there as a sounding board who let me make decisions – whether they be wrong, right or indifferent. From my point of view, the succession has been really, really good.”
In the early days, as Mark learned the timber business, he relied on the expertise of the Woodhouse staff, some who had been there for over 15 years.
“We have really good people at Woodhouse that have a lot of experience and understand products extremely well,” Mark says. “They shared their knowledge and I shared their willingness to learn. The big thing for me, now, is to push the boundaries a little bit in a sector that can be slow to evolve.”
That institutional knowledge is still a vital part of the company, as is the expertise of and close relationship with suppliers. “Our timber suppliers have put a lot of effort into their equipment,” says Chris. “They’ve researched quality glues with better outcomes for both the product and health. Our coatings suppliers, including Dulux and Intergrain have developed top-of-the-range products in conjunction with us.”
This has been built up over time. “Some of these businesses have been working with us since Dad started the company,” says Mark. “Others for 15 or 20 years. It made it easy for us to weather the pandemic disruptions, and it means we can sit down and talk with them regularly about what we can improve and about new technologies and processes.”
KNOWING THE MARKET
From the start, Woodhouse has had a major advantage in understanding the needs of builders. “It helped us with our product development,” says Chris. “We delivered benefits like Weatherproof being easy to lift on site and Edgeline, our interior mouldings range, being easy to paint. Builders immediately appreciated these qualities.”
It’s also helped them expand nationally, as the range differs subtly state by state according to what the local market prefers, though of course the extensive full set is available if required – a bonus for renovators seeking to match product bought when the house was first built, particularly as Woodhouse is happy to supply regular stock in smaller quantities.
“Our products are at different parts of their maturity cycle in different states,” says Mark. “We are new in WA and very established in Queensland and NSW, especially in the case of Weatherproof. Nationwide, the benefits of timber are becoming more evident and understood – particularly talking carbon emissions when you compare it to other building products. It has a nice story.”
Chris adds that he thinks the double brick market that has been dominant in WA is headed for a downturn. “I think more people will say ‘hey, I want something which is going to be a bit friendlier to the environment’,” he says. “We’ve got timber. Without bragging too much, it really is the bee’s knees of building products. It’s light, strong, durable and soaks carbon up: it does the lot.”
A set of new Woodhouse products is underway. “We’re about six months too early to talk about them,” says Mark, “but they are all designed around making people’s lives easier on site – whether that be mum and dad DIYers or builders – and delivering quality products. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of cheaper stuff that seems good at the time, but can come back and bite you.”
Other plans include better integrating supply chains, particularly with the lessons learned during Covid. “If you can understand your customers’ requirements and almost pre-empt them, that’s going to help taking cost out of the supply chain,” Mark says.
The majority of market research still comes the way it has for decades: by talking to customers and their customers. “I’ve been down this morning to a furniture building company down the road, chatting to them about some new products,” says Chris. “That’s how I do most of my information gathering.”
Mark has overseen the company’s move onto social media, with its Instagram a mix of news and inspiration, and managed the up-to-date website, which is now a comprehensive catalogue of the Woodhouse range. “I love that someone can jump onto the site and find what they need within two minutes,” he says.
“But I agree with Dad: there are times where by physically going and seeing someone and talking to them, you’re going to get a lot more out of that than out of an email or phone call. Some of our customers want a seamless automated response, but we’ve also got other customers who love that physical approach and a chat. And we’ll always do that for them.”
For more, visit www.woodhouse.com.au
Image: (from left) Drew Woodhouse, Chris Woodhouse and Mark Woodhouse.