Still Hooked

From trainee to manager, LDT’s Vicki Link has never lost her enthusiasm for the hardwood trade

Summary
Vicki started as a trainee at EAC, which later became DLH UK.
She worked in shipping and administration before becoming a trader.
She specialised in Asian and African trade.
Lathams bought DLH UK in 2011, rebranded it as LDT and appointed Vicki as manager.


Vicki Link’s first contact with the timber trade was more travelogue than job interview.

It was 1985 and the now manager of LDT (Lathams Direct Timber) was fresh out of business college and looking for that first job. She'd lined up an interview at a bank in the afternoon and timber agency and broker EAC in the morning.

“I didn’t know much about timber, but it was an international company and paid well!” she said. “I’d done my preparation for the interview, but then Bent Petersen, EAC's second in command, spent most of the time talking about a business trip to the Far East, and all the other wonderful places he'd been around the world. I was fascinated and hooked from the outset!”

Demanding time

Twenty-seven years on and Vicki acknowledges that she’s just been through probably the most demanding 12 months of her career. First there was the uncertainty over the future of DLH in the UK after its Danish parent decided to strip down to core operations and shed subsidiaries worldwide. Then James Latham bought the UK business, appointed Vicki to the top job and charged her with integrating it into the wider Lathams operation, while still operating as an independent agency and importer behind strict “Chinese walls”. All this against the backdrop of testing market conditions.

But talking in LDT’s new office in the tranquil Kentish village of Brasted, overlooking a paddock complete with galloping horses, and it’s clear recent experiences have done nothing to dent her enthusiasm for the job.

“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve got challenges ahead, not just as an individual business, but as a trade, but that’s part of the interest, and there are opportunities too.”

What has helped carry her through her career, she maintains, right up to her current job, is the bedrock of training and experience she got at the outset.

“Thanks to EAC, I’ve worked in every aspect of the business. I started in administration, did a bookkeeping course and managed our shipping department. I’ve really been in the engine room and learned how each part works. In EAC’s Bob Spiers I also had a boss with a complete open door policy – which I hope I do too. He was a great mentor.”

But while she valued the early experience, what she really hankered after was to be a trader and she got the chance in 2000.

“It went back to that first meeting with Bent. It’s what I really wanted to do and led to some amazing experiences. I was travelling to the Far East, sourcing decking and mouldings in Indonesia and Malaysia, and then moved to African procurement. That resulted in a trip to Congo Brazzaville, where we went to a CIB concession by boat, saw low impact sapele logging, and stayed with the indigenous people. I was so struck, I said I’d take a posting to Africa if one arose. Sadly it didn’t!”

As DLH UK – following EAC’s acquisition by global trading giant DLH Nordisk – the company continued to develop through the noughties. It built up a particularly strong market for its bangkirai, massaranduba and ipe iDeck decking, and for FSC-certified timber; bangkirai from Asia, massaranduba from Brazil, plus sapele, iroko and bilinga from DLH African subsidiary CIB. Meanwhile Vicki herself tied the knot even tighter with the business in 2004, when she married DLH colleague David Link.

However, then recession hit and DLH introduced its 2010 ‘back to black’ strategy to trim down to its original trading roots.

“It was a worrying time. But we were one of the lucky subsidiaries as we were put up for sale – and even luckier that Lathams bought us,” said Vicki. “They were our biggest customer, so we knew them well and, personally, I’d always thought that if there was one other company I'd like to work for, it was Lathams, with their history and reputation. I felt we were a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Under its new ownership and LDT banner, the business has retained complete autonomy in sourcing. “We still have strong links with DLH in Africa, the Far East and Brazil, and in Europe and the US we have many suppliers.”

In sales, Vicki maintains, LDT also still treats Lathams as just one of its merchant and importer customers across the UK and Ireland. “The Chinese walls are strict, we know little about what our owners are doing and vice versa. We did lose a few customers when they bought us, who thought they'd now be buying from a competitor. But overall we gained more than we lost and some people who said they wouldn't buy from us now are.”

Lathams’ benefits

What Lathams brings the business, she said, is added management expertise and financial security in a highly competitive market, one recent outcome being iDeck’s market relaunch. There have also been product synergies.

“For instance we’ve just added Accoya decking to our range,” said Vicki.

The combination of Latham’s and LDT’s long experience in environmental procurement is another benefit of the businesses coming together, she added. “We were both among the pioneers in third-party verified legal and sustainable timber and are both signatories to the Timber Trade Federation’s Responsible Purchasing Policy.”

As such, she maintained, the companies will be more than ready for the introduction of the EU Timber Regulation next March, which makes it obligatory for all “first placers” of timber on the EU market to risk assess suppliers to ensure legality.

“In fact, it may benefit us because merchants who previously also bought direct have told us the EUTR means they’ll only use importers,” she said.

Market outlook

On the general state of the market, Vicki is not expecting significant short-term improvement.

“But if you’re not over-committed to forward ordering, and have stocks on the ground to meet just-in-time demand, as we have at Liverpool and Rainham, with our kilning done at ATS in Sewstern and Gendringen in Holland, there will be reasonable business to be done.”

Underlining LDT’s upbeat outlook, it has also just added Weyerhaeuser Lyptus decking and is now considering bamboo vehicle flooring and laminated eucalyptus. Having pared down to a team of five – one trader, shipping and logistics managers and an admin assistant, plus Vicki – it has also just recruited two more traders, Stuart Smith, ex Goldberg’s, and Lesley Fuller, formerly with UCM.

So while the going may be tough, Vicki doesn’t seem to expect work to eat too much into her leisure time spent with David and her daughter Sophie, following Crystal Palace and David’s team Charlton Athletic and trying to improve her golf.

“I am very positive about the future of this company and our industry,” she said. “And I’m still glad I didn't go to that bank interview.”



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