Profile: Gunnersen’s 125-Year Voyage

Gunnersen Timbermark, one of Australia’s most important wholesalers of timber products, celebrated its 125th Anniversary last year – and even the Prime Minister was impressed…

Thorry Gunnersen AM, Executive Chairman of Gunnersen Timbermark P-L, and Terrie O’Dell, Nevamar’s Senior Design Manager, at the recent launch of the Nevamar rangeAHJGunnersens01June05
When Captain Gunner Gunnersen sailed from Norway to Australia in the 1870s aboard the Helga, he probably had no idea that his cargo of Baltic Pine would form the springboard for one of this country’s major timber product wholesaling enterprises, Gunnersen Timbermark.

“Gunnersens should be commended for its long-held commitment to environmental sustainability, reflected in its sourcing of wood from renewable resource and regrowth forests, and its research and development efforts using recycled materials…” Prime Minister John Howard, 2004
Today, Gunner’s great-grandson Thorold (Thorry) Gunnersen AM, is Executive Chairman of the business, and he is at the helm of a very different kind of ship – a multi-faceted business with bases in Melbourne (HQ), Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns, Adelaide, Perth and, since 2003, in Auckland, New Zealand.

The company wholesales products from such peak suppliers as Carter Holt Harvey, Classic Australian Building Products, Sumitomo Forestry Ltd, Hudson Timber Products and Boral Hancock Plywood, as well as a suite of other firms from Europe, the USA, South Africa, South American countries and elsewhere.

The Helga may have passed into history, but Gunner’s derring-do spirit is still strong within the company. Over the years there have been many corporate crests and troughs, characterised by frenetic manufacturing expansions from the 1960s to the 1980s, followed by calmer periods of consolidation and specialisation.

According to Thorry, timber importation in the early decades of the 20th Century gave way to domestic sawmilling (particularly in Tasmania) after the Great Depression, leading to heavy company investment in milling infrastructure in order to secure resources. “During WWII, for example, we were heavily involved in the manufacture of box shooks, used to make low-grade pine wooden boxes on which the troops were dependent,” Thorry explains. “This led to market leadership in the development of the pine industry through Softwood Holdings, which became for a time the biggest sawmiller in Australia.”

AHJGunnersens02June05In-store panel racks are sleek and functional while also appealing to customers
Of course, the timber industry is an evolving entity, and the company changed its portfolio in post-war years to reflect public demand for different products and services. The company merged with Marbut in 1964, paving the way for direct involvement in milling, parquet flooring, moulding and door manufacture. Subsequently, the company acquired Presswell Panels in 1978 and Hi Dap in 1982, further diversifying its manufacturing works.

The 1980s, says Thorry, was “the takeover decade”, felt most acutely at Gunnersen when CSR took over Softwood Holdings in 1987, following a failed bid by ACI. All other manufacturing facilities were sold during this era as the company rationalised its production activities and reinforced its distribution network. These days the company continues to serve as a distributor for many of the manufacturing businesses that were sold in the 1980s.

Distribution-bound
The decision to focus on distribution, says Thorry, has been vindicated into the 21st Century: “We had always been strong in distribution and now we have an extremely focused national business, including an office in New Zealand.” The company merger with Timbermark in 2001 enhanced the product offering available to clients, and nowadays the business is well placed to respond rapidly to ever-changing reseller and consumer needs.

“I think the main point to make about our culture today is that we recognise that every State has its own unique character,” says Thorry. “Therefore, we try to give as much autonomy as possible to the managers of each region, and this is a major point of difference between us and other companies, including many manufacturing companies that carry out their own distribution.”

Product “Inspirations”
Responsiveness to individual market needs has resulted in a large and expanding product list. Categories available to commercial resellers include Laminate, Hardboard, MDF, Veneered Board, Particle Board, Mouldings and Cladding. In addition, a new business unit called Gunnersen Inspirations comprises cutting-edge surface technology products. The Inspirations collection consists of Nevamar’s Armored Protection Laminate, inFORM’s Anti Bacterial Laminate, Hi-Mac’s Acrylic Solid Surface, Swanstone Moulded Benchtops and unique Element and Verve surfaces.

The Gunnersen Timbermark P-L warehouse at Derrimut, a western suburb of MelbourneAHJGunnersens03June05
New technologies present a continual flow of product innovations to the market, and Thorry estimates that non-traditional, synthetic products account for almost 20% of the company’s overall product offering. The trend, he explains, is driven by numerous factors, including greater governmental intervention in tree harvesting policies, strict Industrial Relations procedures during processing, and ongoing technical improvements (in terms of fire retardation, strength and performance) in the formulation of synthetic materials.

The Nevamar range, for example, features high-pressure laminates in 112 different colours, wood grains and patterns, with incredible durability provided by a coating of aluminium oxide particles. Such products are opening up new applications for Gunnersen products and gratifying market demands for materials that are both fashionable and functional. Already the company has introduced a Recreation range of goods for public Open Space projects, and the selection may expand to accommodate more domestic-style outdoor applications.

Product Development
According to Thorry, it is important for any distributor to keep a close watch on industry developments and inventions, and the timber industry is no exception. As a board member of such peak bodies as the Co-operative Research Centre for Wood Innovations, as well as the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation (FWPRDC), Thorry plays an active role in the development and direction of the timber products industry. He says we are in the midst of an exciting time in the development of both Construction and Decorative ranges. “For example, I was in the UK recently and saw a six-storey building made entirely from timber framing, and there is also interesting work being done in microwave technologies that have applications in bending wood and, at high energy levels, pulverising it to make highly absorbent materials for picking up oil spills.” While these kinds of innovations may not feature in core Gunnersen product lists (at least for the time being), it is reassuring to know that the company is aware of the latest developments.

The company’s other major interests are supply chain management and marketing processes that can help resellers achieve greater sales.

AHJGunnersens04June05The Derrimut warehouse is spacious and designed to facilitate fast turnaround times
Gunnersen’s Marketing Manager, John McClure, says delivery turnaround times are usually one or two days, depending on the location of the reseller.

“All you have to do is look at our WallArt in-store merchandising systems, which are professional, stylish and very space-efficient,” says John. “We have a full catalogue available to resellers who want to make use of these display systems.” Combined with fully barcoded order tracking systems for POS ease, the Gunnersen marketing department promotes a “smooth sailing” format for retailers and their staff.

For more information visit www.gunnersens.com.au.

By John Power