It’s a tricky balance for any family-run business to keep hold of the fundamentals that underpinned its success and still be progressive and outward-looking.
JJ Smith, a leading supplier of new and used woodworking machinery, was founded in 1923 by four brothers. Almost a century on and a third of the Knowsley firm’s 36-strong team are descendants of those original founders.
The business supplies, installs, and maintains machinery for a wide variety of customers that work with wood. In practice, a big part of its customer base is the construction industry. Wood, of course, is an essential component in housebuilding.
And if you look around and the myriad of everyday objects that are made of wood – fitted kitchens, garden sheds, fences, furniture – then it becomes clear how big an industry JJ Smith is servicing.
While proud of its past, the company is also constantly looking to the future. It is a keen investor in new technology and innovation and is always looking to maintain a skilled workforce.
Around a third of its team started off with the company as apprentices, including some of the current directors. And, every September, the businesses aims to take on two apprentices. A number of its non-family staff members often come with a family connection, via recommendations, which adds to the family nature of the business.
“Investing in the workforce is really important for us,” said commercial director Rachael Baker, whose great grandfather was one of the four founders of the firm. “When we train people, as engineers for example, they tend to stay with us for a long time.
“We have a number of employees who will be retiring in the next 10 to 15 years and it is vital we bring new people through to maintain that continuity. We offer people a real career path when they join us, and as a family business we take a long view when it comes to recruitment.”
As a female executive in what is still a male-dominated industry, Rachael is keen to ensure JJ Smith offers jobs and training opportunities to as wide a range of people as possible. She is working with organisations such as All About STEM, who are encouraging more girls to consider careers in science and engineering.
She explained: “I’m not the first female director at JJ Smith, in some ways family businesses were ahead of the curve in recognising the benefits of diverse boards. Hopefully that change is now spreading throughout the industry.
“However, old barriers and mindsets can still persist. When we are putting someone through to one of our engineers there is still an expectation that they will be speaking to a man. There are some fantastic female engineers out there and I want us to play a part in that change.”
The twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the new trade agreement with the EU have been taxing for many businesses and JJ Smith is no exception. According to Rachael there was a short period during the first lockdown in April last year when things were looking “bleak”.
“In April, everything just came to a stop,” she said. “It felt quite scary. We initially had to furlough a number of staff but then we found new ways of working. I’m really proud of how everyone has pulled together as a team and adapted to all the changes, it’s been a real testimony to that hard work that we are where we are now, looking at 2021 with optimism.
“We have a number of international customers and, prior to the pandemic, it was unusual for us not to have an engineer on a plane on their way to somewhere. We have had to adapt and video calls have become invaluable to allow use to do business.
“I think this period will change how we conduct business in the future. For many jobs, you have to be there in person but video calling will definitely be part of the mix now. There is no longer any need to drive across the country for a five-minute meeting.”
Brexit presented a real challenge for JJ Smith. The company is both an importer and an exporter with customers and suppliers in more than 50 countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Rachael added: “We spent a lot of time preparing for Brexit. Much of the machinery we supply comes from the EU.
“We put in a lot of time and resources into getting ready for the departure from the EU. However, there is only so much you can do before the reality hits and we are now on a big learning curve. We have learned a lot about paperwork, even despite our knowledge of worldwide trade. But we are learning fast and adapting.”
One of the big growth areas for JJ Smith in the coming months and years is offsite construction. That is when homes built in factories and installed on site in little more than a day. The firm has established a joint venture called Modular Building Automation with a Dutch partner to meet this growing demand.
“Offsite construction is becoming a significant part of our business,” said Rachael. “There are three big companies in the world supplying the market and we are the only one in the UK.
“This method of construction has been popular in Scandinavia for a while but it is really starting to catch on here, now. We have a shortage of good, affordable homes in this country and factory built homes could make a real contribution to that mix.”
Rachael sees further growth for JJ Smith as the business heads towards its centenary year in 2023. She added: “Succession planning is very important for us. In the past six months we have recruited five new people to our team.
“We note the rise in DIY projects since people have been in lockdown. We expect that trend to continue, even post-COVID, with a subsequent demand for products made from wood.
“We will emerge from the pandemic far more digitally connected than we were before (the firm’s own You Tube channel is an industry hit) and we are always looking to innovate. We see exciting times ahead.”