Ted James jokes that in his younger days in the timber industry he was sometimes called “the Del Boy” of the trade. He puts this down to his Cockney accent, his south London roots and self-admission that he is a born salesman.
The location of South London Timber, of which he’s managing director, in the Old Kent Reoad furthers the association with the BBC’s legendary comedy, Only Fools and Horses, as it’s just a mile or so from Nelson Mandela House, Peckham, where the TV character was based. Mr James laughs at the comparison, but in reality it could not be further from the truth, as he presides over a successful £12m turnover timber merchanting business supplying some of the biggest construction projects in the UK with commodity softwood and plywood. He attributes this succes to a number of factors; a good grounding in the timber trade in the 1970s, his early ambition to won his own company, the constant support of his wife Tracy, reinvestment of profit back into the business, recruiting some key people and “some luck”.
Mr James, who grew up in Bermondsey, originally fell into the timber trade after seeing a newspaper job advertisement. “My family had been lightermen on Thames (barges) – for generations. “And I would have followed my father into that trade, but it was dying, “he said, “I had to get a job when I was leaving school and saw this advert in the paper which was seeking someone for telephone sales at WH Newsons, which was based in Pimlico Road. So I started my timber industry career in 1976 at Newsons, with Maurice Chapman as my boss.”
IN THE DEEP END
He was only 16 at the time, but Newsons threw him in at the deep end. “They decided to start a training scheme and I was their first trainee,” he said. “I went into various departments at the company to learn about the business – buying, accounts and the loading department working from 10am-8pm.”Newsons also paid or Mr James to do a two-year Institute of Wood Science course on block release. “It was a very good course and I learned all the different areas of the timber industry – timber technology, timber products, economics, law and accounts.” He was at Newsons until he was 21, and then left the trade for a few years. But he was back in the early 1980s, now at Docklands Timber in Bermondsey, based under the railway arches. It wasn’t long before Mr James was inspired to set up on his own – at the tender age of 26. He also got some premises under the railway arches in Druid Street. South London Timber was born. “I always had a desire to start my own business one day and we sold our house to do it and made ourselves homeless!” he said. “We also went into partnership with my brother (who is still co-director), and he became the driver.”
South London Timber did not have a massive operation or a big yard straight away, focusing on softwoods and commodity plywood. But it was fast and furious. “The nearer you can be based to London, the beter it is. I could see there was always going to be loads of building going on”, said Mr James. In some ways, what elevated South London Timber to the net level was the construction of the Jubilee Lane tube extension in the early 1990s. It was benefitted the company when leading London timber business John Lenanton & Son Ltd ceased operating and much of its trade diverted to South London Timber. “There was a big opening for somebody to do what Lenantons were doing and we were positioned at the hub of where all the constuction was happening. We were still new then, but our name was starting to get noticed by the bigger contractors,” said Mr James. An ex-colleague Paul Burton, who had worked at Meyers, then came on board in 1990 as a plywood buyer. This marked South London Timber’s start in importing. “By then the trade had changed. The school tie had been dropped a bit and it became all about credit rating. If that stood up, then agents wokuld be prepared to deal with you.”
KEY NEW RECRUITS
Another important recruit was Douglas Harrichand, previous a Lathams trainee, who joined the business in 1997, bringing a lot of new selling skills to the operation. He now deals with sales and purchasing of lumber at the business. By 2003 South London Timber had outgrown its site in Druid Street and it moved to the Old Kent Road. This was the year of the introduction of the London Congestion Charge, which has – along with the Fleet Operators Recognition Scheme (FORS) – added additional costs to the business. But they did not hold it back. “After the Jubilee Line extension we saw an opening in the formwork industry,” said Mr James. “We saw an opening in the mid-1990s and got into a good relationship with agency Wood International run by Mike and Alan Lamont.”
FORMWORK FIRES GROWTH
The realationship with Wood International led to South London Timber supplying the 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper, better-known as the Walkie-Talkie building. “We’re also actively involved with Crossrail, which is the largest construction project in Europe,” said Mr James. “The experience of having supplied the Jubilee Line extension helped us meet the expections of contractors. The construction material buyers who worked on the Jubilee Line moved over to Crossrail.” South London Timber will supply the massive project for another year or so, and there’s a lot happening besides. “I’ve spent 39 years in the trade and I don’t remember London as busy as it is now – and I have come through some pretty busy periods,” said Mr James. “There are plans for a lot of building work in London in the next five years. Also, over the next 10 years there is the Bakerloo Line extension from Elephant & Castle down the Old Kent Road. There is certainly so much change going on in London.” But he admits that markets also go down as well as up and that London property prices have been aided by foreign investment money, which is not guaranteed to keep flowing in. He recalls previous downturns, notably and most recently, of course, the 2007-8 crash. “In the financial crisis a lot of customers had their credit rate cancelled almost overnight. It was a rash decision by the credit insurers and it affected our business, but I did not panic and we conducted our business without credit insurance cover for a while,” said Mr James. Despite its growth, he says he still runs the company ‘a bit like a corner shop’. “We supply a lot of formwork, which is very price-driven, and you need to be very efficient with deliveries and speedy. We do all these things well.” It is also still very much a family operation, with Mr James’s sister Pat heading accounts and daughter, Sadie, also working with her. Brother Michael, who deals with transport and logistics, has a daughter, Nancy, who works in the same department. Another former colleague at Newsons, Terry Major, joined South London Timber in 2001, with his son Harry following in 2006.
FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
“You have got to follow your dreams and little acorns grow,” said Mr James. “I always had this desire to make my own money and even when I had only just left school I had a flower pitch? I also consider myself fortunate to have joined a good company when I was younger. It was important to my grounding in the industry and it also taught me to have good training in place for young people”
And he still enjoys the business. “Once I got my head into this industry I loved it and I still love it. It’s a great trade,” he said “I also believe most good sales persons are born sales persons. I think I was born to be a sales person and I love people.” Mr James also stressed the importance of teamwork and investing in staff, with recruits learning all aspects of the trade. “Some companies just look at the bottom line and think short-term. We’re re-investing profits to move the business forward, rather than take on debt,” he said. He chuckles again about the Only Fools and Horses connection. “There are lots of characters in this area,” he said.
“When I do harp back to Only Fools and Horses, a lot of people said it was like me in my early days; the Del Boy of the timber trade. But I managed to shake off the image!” Moving to Old Kent Road clearly enhanced South London Timber’s profile as it’s a key strategic point on the main A2 into London. But it’s still only a couple of miles from where Mr James grew up in Bermondsey and he clearly hasn’t shaken off the ties.
Which brings us to his film career. “A lot of famous people came out of Bermondsey and there was always a bit of me that fancied being an actor,” he said. This dream came true too in 2004 when he as asked to play a small gangster role, Baby Jimmy daCosta, in the film The Riddle starring Sir Derek Jacobi and Vinnie Jones.