Precision Woodworking: Moving from primary production to value added
Stabroek News
November 4, 2001

Precision Woodworking Limited (PWL) is poised to break into markets other than the English market in a big way, Managing Director of Precision Woodworking Ronald Bulkan has said.

In an interview last week, Bulkan, the winner of the Ernst and Young Caribbean Entrepreneur of the year said that the PWL's major market is England, accounting for ninety per cent of the company's exports. Their clients include the John Lewis chain, Paul Reef, Westminster Teak and Atkinson Agencies, two of which are national distributors.

Bulkan who was in England a week ago said that the company had been informed "that consumer spending has already increased over previous Septembers. This may be because of the general fear of flying. Many people may very well forego taking holidays abroad."

This meant, he said, that people were going to spend more time at home, show a greater inclination to upgrade their gardens and purchase garden furniture.

Asked what the Caribbean award meant, Bulkan said that he believed that it marked the turning point for the company: "I believe this award is going to take us onto an entirely different level... I would see all that has preceded [it] as the first half and from now on I think we are beginning the second half."

Based on enquiries PWL had received from the Caribbean for garden furniture, Bulkan thought that PWL was going to break into the Caribbean in a big way as well as into many other countries.

"If you can sell garden furniture to the English," he said, "then by definition you can penetrate every other international market - the Middle East, Japan, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Central and Latin America and the Caribbean." He felt that the English, who had pioneered and popularised the use of high quality garden furniture, were among the most discerning consumers of that product.

Noting that unless living standards increased dramatically in Guyana, PWL's furniture was going to be beyond the reach of the local market because the cost of production was too high. In addition he said that PWL could not compete with the individual producer who was going to make a table, a chair or a table set based on orders.

Asked about staff turnover, Bulkan replied that it was neglible. "Staff turnover is practically zero," he said. "We cannot afford to lose somebody once we have trained them. Consequently we have to pay them well to ensure that they don't have to think about leaving. When they first come in here they get intimidated by the way it is organised and the scope of the operation, so it takes a while to actually become productive. There is specialised training that has to be done. Once they have passed that training process we cannot afford to have a high turnover."

PWL has also been responsible for pioneering the timber species `courbaril,' known as locust, in its garden furniture. Teak, he noted, was the most valuable timber species for outdoor application, but PWL had been able to position courbaril, which was previously unknown, to just below teak in market acceptance. "That is something we have done on our own," he observed.

Having found acceptance in the local market for courbaril, Bulkan said PWL directly lobbied the government not to allow the wood to be exported in its primary state. He said they felt that the raw material should remain in Guyana and factories should be encouraged to start up similar projects as they did not have a monopoly on the furniture business in this country. He believed that others could start up similar investments and try to sell in their markets. "The field is quite open," he said; "Guyana should be known as a place where massive quantities of high quality furniture is produced and exported." This, he added, would improve living standards.

He noted, too, that PWL had been the pioneer in moving furniture manufacture from an art and craft form to a process involving engineering and industrial production.

Obtaining timber on a regular basis had not been straightforward, he noted, observing that the company had had "to protect itself in times of scarcity of raw material." It bought from all the big sawmillers and chain saw operators, and a lot of time was spent visiting the suppliers to ensure quality and continuity of supply, as courbaril was not as popular as greenheart and purpleheart, and was not as easily available in the same quantity. PWL bought from the Pomeroon, Mazaruni, the Linden/ Soesdyke Highway, Kwak-wani and Ituni, among other places.

The company, which is the current holder of the President's Export Award sponsored by the Guyana Manufacturers Association, was registered 18 years ago with five founding directors - Howard, Rustum and Ronald Bulkan, Gordon Forte and Kimmy Rahaman. (Forte and Rahaman opted out in the first year and Howard Bulkan went on his own in 1996). At the time they were all employees of A Mazaharally and Sons Limited where they had worked for a number of years and were looking to make a career move. They had gained some working experience and wanted to move on. Because of their exposure to wood they thought they would get into a business that involved wood.

Bulkan recalled, "We thought we'd use local raw material and put together the package, train the people and find markets. It was a massive undertaking but 18 years on... since our incorporation, we are proud that we have done it. We have taken value added from theory and made it reality."

The project proposal was done by Forte. Initial funding of US$100,000 for production equipment was obtained from the then development bank, GAIBANK under an Inter-American Development Bank line of credit. Working capital was provided by the Guyana National Cooperative Bank up to 1993 and thereafter from the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry and finally from mid-1998 from the National Bank of Industry and Commerce. Bulkan said, "it has been no easy task to reassure commercial bankers to stick with a project that was not showing decent financial performance and in many years, losses. This could only have been done by displaying unquestionable personal integrity and reasonable proof that the vision was indeed grounded in reality and not an abstract ideal."

The road had not been easy: "We had to be self-sufficient to overcome many problems such as generating our own power and installing our own water system; putting in our own workshops to service machines." In addition there had been the absence of a skilled labour force, "and it took the better part of eight years to achieve a significant degree of competence to be able to produce competitively. So yes, while we were exporting from the early years, we were not really competitive. We were basically just making something and selling it. There was nothing in it for me or you. The cost of production was so high and the output so low. We ... actually began to turn the corner by 1997 when we achieved profitability."

Recalling the start-up phase, he said that in 1985 the facility was in place but there was no staff, no market, no products. "All we had was an intention that we would like to make wooden furniture and export to the Caribbean... We ourselves knew nothing about manufacturing furniture."

The same year at the end of July, they took part in Caribbean Expo (CARIMEX), which coincided with the Caribbean Heads of Government meeting held in Barbados. There they got orders to supply a number of retailers with household furniture in Barbados, principally Modern Living, a branch of the Geddes Grant Group and Cave Shepherd. They started selling wooden beds and household furniture to those two department stores. These were followed by clients in Trinidad and Tobago including Y De Lima Trading, the Huggins Chain and Juman Furniture. They subsequently got orders from Antigua. "The question of market penetration between 1985 and 1990 was quite slow but we were making continuous efforts," Bulkan said.

By 1990, Barbadian manufacturer, P Angelus, wanted PWL to source furniture components on quite a big scale. During this period, the company "had gotten significant help from a number of state agencies, including the then GUYMIDA which made available through the United Nations Development Programme a lot of foreign machining consultants." They also got substantial help from the Centre for the Development of Industries (CDI), a Brussels-based organisation through the efforts of GUYMIDA director Clem Duncan. Thereafter they funded the professional expatriate skills training programme on their own.

By December 1992, they began selling assembled furniture components to manufacturers in Ireland, and by 1994, "we saw the opportunity to use the timber we had here to make garden furniture." They produced their first garden bench and were successful in finding a buyer in England. Thereafter, they started working with the designer and increased their range.

They made contacts in England through production specialists who worked with them. "It was a case," he said, "if we could demonstrate... that we could supply them with the kind of product they would have been manufacturing themselves they could source it from us. This also meant that they could increase their volume without producing it themselves." So for about three years they sold furniture components before assembling them in Guyana and exporting them as a finished product.

Summing up the achievement, Bulkan said: "Every president in my memory has spoken about the imperative of moving from primary production to value-added production as the only way Guyana can develop. We are the only successful example of a company that is involved on a sizeable scale of high value-added product." (Miranda La Rose)