“The veneer business takes care of preserving the forest.”
Axel Groh, managing director and co-owner of one of the leading businesses in the veneer industry, spoke in the following interview about the new EU Timber Regulation, the future of veneer and the importance of innovations.
Mr. Groh, the new EU Timber Regulation went into effect in March. What does it mean for the veneer business?
The regulation bans trade in illegally harvested timber in the EU. This is, of course, a positive step that will help to protect forests all over the world. I hope that the law also makes the public realize that it is not a bad thing per se to cut down a tree. It would be good if end-users could once again put their trust in forestry and appreciate the use of wood. A healthy forest is something special that deserves protection. The veneer business in particular can make a significant contribution to preserving our forests as they are – with old growth, many different species, stand stability and natural habitat for wildlife.
You say that the veneer business contributes to the preservation of healthy forests. What does that mean?
Today a forest has to make money. If a forest is not profitable, it might be burned down to mine natural resources or to make room for plantations. On the other hand, the veneer industry, with its special single tree use, means high profitability for the forest owner. Our business makes it worthwhile for the forest owner to protect and maintain the forest. A good example is a current project in Africa, where large forested areas are protected as wildlife refuges, surveyed and mapped. Single valuable trees are harvested for veneer production at regular intervals. This practice is modeled on the natural dying off of big, old trees that would otherwise rot. The forest quickly and naturally fills in the gaps. Greenpeace supports this project.
Then forestry is sustainable when it is done right?
The term “sustainability” was coined by forestry at the beginning of the 18th century. At that time a great deal of deforestation was taking place. Forest management was introduced to counteract a shortage of wood. The idea was to take from the forest only the quantity and quality that could grow back. Today sustainability is the means of choice not just in forestry but in many areas of agriculture.
The new EU regulation demands evidence of the origin of wood. Can we expect bottlenecks as a result?
There’s no general answer to this question. It is assumed that about 19% of previously traded wood came from illegal sources. This trade should and will collapse. Presumably it involves only a few species from Central America and Africa and wood purchasing in some Eastern European countries. For the timber industry the required documentation is a challenge, one that many will not like.
Many years ago Schorn & Groh made a voluntary commitment to import only legal species of wood. We support sustainable forestry and prefer to buy in growing areas and from business that practice regulated logging and replanting. Our company is therefore certified by both FSC® and PEFC. Thorough documentation from our suppliers has always been very important for us.
Can your company continue to offer all species of wood?
We offer 140 species of wood from around the world and will continue to buy and sell them without any trouble at all. We assume that all our suppliers are “clean”. This is one of the reasons why we employ buyers who have studied forestry and the timber industry. With their extensive knowledge, they can tell what is legal and what might be illegal. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only ones in the timber industry who can make this claim. In difficult or complicated cases, I get directly involved as managing director. For some of our suppliers it will be a lot of work to provide the documentation the timber regulation demands. However, we are confident that we won’t lose any suppliers.
How do things look in general for timber purchasing?
For some years now high-quality veneer flitches have been in short supply. Fewer trees overall have been felled in response to the low demand. For another thing, because the forests were overused for so many years, they need time to recover and grow.
Which species of wood are popular now?
We have noticed a strong trend toward a natural or even a rustic look. Today oak can once again have many knots and other natural characteristics, like the so-called “wild oak.” Walnut is heading in the same direction. In general we see a tendency toward domestic wood, with oak clearly in the lead.
Another trend is dark wood. Smoked oak, for example, is in high demand. Right now we are launching a new product we call “CoCo” that fits this trend. To make this veneer, we use an environmentally friendly process that dyes the wood naturally. CoCo is currently available in four very attractive shades of brown that feature high color reproducibility. You can order Nero CoCo today, for example, and buy the very same shade again next year. That is generally not possible with wood. We plan to experiment with woods other than oak.
You have made substantial investments in company headquarters in Karlsruhe. Have you finished all the rebuilding?
Yes, I’m happy to confirm it. The work on the main building in Karlsruhe was finished last year. In recent months we have completely restructured the warehouse. The idea was that our customers should select their veneer in a more pleasant atmosphere with good lighting. Our intelligent new warehouse system makes that possible. We photographed and catalogued all the veneer bundles and set up a customer area with two showrooms. If a customer wants to inspect the goods, he can make his initial selection on the screen. The forklift operator receives a computer-generated order to deliver the selected goods to the showroom at a specified time.
Instead of walking through a dark warehouse, our customers can now choose their veneers under the right lighting conditions. We offer this service to customers interested in bundles. Customers who want to buy smaller quantities are welcome to select their veneers in the “detail area” of our warehouse. By the way, we currently have about seven million square meters of veneer in stock.
One more question. What are your goals till the next Interzum in 2015?
One of my major goals is to learn more about the changing market for veneer so that I can put together the right sales team. Part of my strategy is to come up with innovations, with products that cater to market needs. At the same time I intend to look around for interesting new procurement markets.