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August newsletter – The female face of a family firm

Six years ago, our family bought Dargle Poles, a CCA treating plant on a neighbouring farm in the KZN Midlands. At the time, the business was small, supplying a few local farmers and hardware stores when stocks permitted. Our goal is to grow the business into a profitable venture that will contribute to supporting two families.

Working alongside my father, Patrick Norton, who generally oversees the silviculture and harvesting, I am involved in the day-to-day running of the pole production, marketing and finance, although our responsibilities do sometimes overlap. Being a family business, my husband Craig is also a Director and involved in the strategic planning and management, but not in the day-to-day running of the business.

The last six years have been a huge learning curve. There are no “existing blueprints” for this type of business that suited our business needs or size. So we have had to study, experiment and carefully strategise the planting, procurement, treating and sales of poles to get the processes and systems in place that keep us efficient and able to compete with much larger companies. The support of suppliers, other farmers and NCT Forestry has been crucial in this regard, and while there is still much to be done, we are proud of how far we have come.

Where we are today
We are currently in the process of cleaning, planting, neatening and securing top quality plantations to supply our plant, as to date, production has grown around 250% and our timber plantations have been extended from 120 ha to 270 ha through the purchase and lease of plantations from different family entities.

Cultivating excellent relationships with local timber growers is key to our success and mutually beneficial, as it ensures us a constant timber supply through dedicated contracts and in return, our growers get almost double the income for timber sent to us as poles compared to the price received for pulp. Good relationships with our growers enable us to work closely with our farmers, when necessary, to upgrade the quality of their plantations, encourage good farming practices and cleanliness and where possible replant, to ensure good economic returns on the timberland. Overall, we have seen a huge improvement in the quality of timber grown in the vicinity and this, in turn, helps us obtain adequate timber supply.

As a woman in forestry
Forestry is traditionally a man’s world, where women in the industry often feel the need to prove themselves a ‘worthy equal’. To an extent, I am spared this being a Director of our business. Forestry male-only reputation is one we need to address, and I am encouraged by the respect and gratitude shown by our customers when a job is done well, irrespective of gender or race. Although I accept many men still have a difficult time transitioning to women filling positions that were traditionally occupied by men, especially management positions. But having said that, the stigma of female management is starting to recede as women start to prove their capabilities and earn the trust and respect of their male and female colleagues. I also believe that many people simply need to realise that often women manage in different, less aggressive ways. As a company, we have chosen a management style that motivates and rewards, and staff are treated with fairness and respect. But at the same time, we try to ensure that the processes and structures are in place and managed so that productivity, safety and efficiencies are constantly monitored, and not compromised.

For me, as a mother of three boys, it would be impossible to do this venture without the support and dedication of an incredible management team, 50% of which are women. They enable me to carry out family and other responsibilities, assured in the knowledge the business is being watched over by a competent team. I am immensely proud of the way Dargle Poles’ female managers have shown great strength, resilience and positivity during these challenging times and have gone about their jobs with enthusiasm and the drive to succeed.

Moving forestry forward
A focus of mine is to engage with staff to help them understand that each person needs to take ownership of the business. We need to shift the thinking of working for “the boss” who begrudgingly pays salaries from their bank accounts each month, to the realisation that the company is a team, with its own identity, and cannot operate without each staff member doing their bit to ensure that as a whole the company is successful. In short, we tell them that they are responsible for paying their salaries. On the advice from others in the timber industry, we have implemented an incentive system in our production plant, and have found the teamwork and morale has improved dramatically because each person understands their role and responsibility within the bigger picture, and are rewarded accordingly when the team as a whole is successful. We are now looking at a similar system on the felling side.

While our production and felling teams are still male-dominated due to the physicality of the work being conducted; women are thriving in the silvicultural side of our business, which is unsurprising as planting and growing of crops has traditionally been the women’s role in Africa for generations. Looking forward, we would love though to see more women coming out of schools with trade and technical skills such as mechanics or machinery operators as we believe women have good attention to detail and are often careful and methodical. Girls need to be encouraged to break the stereotype and pursue these roles, and basic education still needs a massive shake-up in South Africa in this regard.

When it comes to dealing with the rest of the industry, as a woman I have been welcomed and encouraged. There are inspiring leaders, farmers, business people and the industry has an incredibly far-reaching influence in our country. On the marketing front, I have only once been instructed by a customer to please go away and consult my father and husband on a pricing negotiation, as they were not willing to have that discussion with me… even though I do the pricing! I am pleased to say, this is not the norm.

I have been impressed by the ethics and social responsibility of the timber-related organisations and am inspired by what we can add to the growth and development of that value chain, even if many of us have small businesses with limited local influence. Forestry and its value chain in South Africa, is a beacon of hope to our ailing economy and I am excited to play a small part in that. We do, however, need to protect the integrity and strength of this industry by fighting back against corruption and crime, and it is encouraging to see this being addressed at the highest levels already. I look forward to working hard in this sector for many years to come and witnessing how the encouragement and support of women in forestry results in more women in positions of management and expertise soon.

Julia Rees
Director Dargle Poles

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