Forestry's First Lady
Former lawyer and current Norwood Sawmills President Ashlynne Dale sits at the head of a truly international success story for the forestry sector. She tells Editor Chris Cann how she’s used her skills from her previous career to build Norwood into the company it is today; why forestry professionals are more enlightened than lawyers and judges; and why she never takes a day off work
International Forest Industries: Your law background is slightly unusual for the forestry sector. Is wood processing an unusual sector for you to end up serving?
Ashlynne Dale: I fell into forestry because Norwood is a family-run operation. It had never been my intention to go into this particular line of business – in fact, this business didn’t exist when I went into law. When I started my law degree, it was always with the intention of practicing for only a limited period and using my legal training as a stepping stone into the business world. Assuming this role at Norwood could be described as an afterthought.
My father, Peter Dale, started the business in 1992 with a single product – Norwood’s flagship LumberMate portable bandsaw mill. He’s an extremely resourceful individual and entrepreneur, and started up Norwood as an alternative to the only portable band sawmill line available at the time, which was much larger than needed by most small producers and too expensive. He thought, bollocks to that, I’ll make my own more financially accessible mill. The natural conclusion he drew from there was that if he felt like that, then others must too, and so he began manufacturing portable sawmills. That was actually the birth of the affordable portable bandsaw mill world – where the average guy could own his own bandmill.
My father first approached me to take it over in the mid-90s but I didn’t come into the business until almost 2000. Then the process of the handover took a little bit of time, as these things tend to do, but it’s been my baby for a while now. When I first came into the company, it was still a one-trick pony with the single bandsaw model and no corporate branding. We needed to do more to grow the business.
IFI: How has your previous life as a lawyer helped you in our current role?
AD: I only ever wanted to do business and, in law school, I trained purely for commercial law. Originally, I started practicing corporate, commercial and securities law, but realised that was a dreadful bore so I moved over into commercial litigation which was, firstly, a lot more interesting and, secondly, a great environment to gain business experience as a 25-year-old. I moved through my schooling earlier than most so, after I graduated with my book-smarts, I was able to expose myself to the real commercial world at a young age. As a commercial litigator, I parachuted into a myriad of company problems and was able to get a first-hand look at the way many businesses were run. I saw real-life employment issues, contract, banking and insurance law – all those things. You really do learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of how the real world works. The other thing about commercial litigation is that you get kicked around a lot so, more than anything, you pick up streetsmarts. That gave me the ability to move into a management role in the business world faster and younger than most, and to perform somewhat competently.
IFI: Do any of your technical skills as a lawyer transfer to the forestry sector specifically?
AD: I chose to become a lawyer as a step to becoming a business person because someone once told me that law teaches you how to think. That was good advice – my legal background trained me to quickly analyse facts, identify possible opportunities, solutions and consequences, and make decisions.
Our business happens to be in the forestry sector but I am not sure that really matters; at the end of the day, we’re manufacturing and selling equipment. Forestry equipment is really just another thing to sell and the same basic business principles apply and need to be done well. If I went into the service industry, on the other hand, I would likely sink a company within three months because I have little understanding how that kind of business model works. But when it comes to manufacturing and marketing equipment, whether it’s sawmills or wheelbarrows, I’d probably apply the same general skills set.
IFI: Have you found it difficult to be a woman in such a male dominated industry?
AD: In the forestry world, I’ve often dealt with people who have not had the education that I’ve enjoyed but almost universally they are more respectful of me as a woman – or, more accurately, they’re indifferent to my gender as compared to the lawyers and judges that I had to deal with when I was practicing law. I find that really interesting – you have these people with all this education, multiple degrees, with professional designations and they feel themselves mightily superior because they believe themselves to be educated and enlightened. But, in my experience, people in the forestry sector are usually more progressive in their treatment of women; they could care less about gender. Law was quite the opposite; I had all sorts of discriminatory incidents in the legal profession, the kind that I have never experienced at any other time in my life. I think it may have something to do with law being an old boys club or, perhaps, more people go into law who have ego problems.
IFI: Is Norwood’s focus on a broad international market something you have established for the company?
AD: My father started immediately with the US-Canadian focus. When a lot of people first start out, they only think about supplying their local community; generally their focus isn’t as wide as a whole country or beyond. My father didn’t blink an eye at immediately going America-wide and was quickly selling internationally on an individual basis. But neither one of us felt that North America alone was going to be able to sustain our growth at the rate we were going and, of course, there are forests all over the world; it made clear sense for us to tap into those markets. In the mid-2000s, we started to make really concerted efforts to forge alliances with sophisticated partners with whom we could work in various international markets. That’s an on-going process and we’re still looking to fill out that stable of partners, but we also need to recognise that we have come a long way toward achieving our goal. It’s a longwinded process to establish these sorts of global relationships but, for us to continue to thrive, it’s absolutely critical.
IFI: Many companies maintain a domestic focus; why do you see international markets as critical?
AD: People say you should diversify your investment portfolio because, when bonds are down, stocks might be up; when gold is down, your energy portfolio might be stronger; and so on. It’s the exact same thing when running a business – if we have all our eggs in the one basket, then we’re more vulnerable. There’s never been a more important time to be an international player with exposure to international markets than right now, with the global economy in such a fragile and unpredictable state. When North America was tanking in 2008, Europe was still going relatively strongly, and now, as North America is recovering, Europe is struggling. Being able to straddle many markets is critical.
So the real purpose of Norwood’s international focus is, firstly, a buffer or form of insurance through diversification. The other thing it should do, ideally, is to grow our brand awareness and ultimately our sales.
IFI: Does that make Ligna a very important event for Norwood?
AD: We’ve had a presence at Ligna for the past number of years via Logosol, our northern and western European partner. And while being part of industry shows such as Ligna forms a part of our strategy, we’re looking for any and all international exposure we can get. We have a very strong partner in northern Europe and have just established a very promising partnership with Austro, the leading distributor of woodprocessing equipment in southern Africa.
We’ve been very fortunate to have attracted some excellent companies to work with. They aren’t official partners in a legal sense – they’re dealers and distributors – but I view them more as partners because we have to work closely together to make the ventures a success. We’re still looking for partners to meet our customers’ needs in several regions in South and Central America, Asia and elsewhere around the world. We welcome any international distributorship inquiries from well established wood-processing or landowner-focused companies with broad market penetration and proven distribution experience.
IFI: Do you see any blue sky for the global economy and forestry in general?
AD: One thing I don’t think we’ll see any time soon in the Western economies is a typical return from recession as we have enjoyed over the past 40 years; I don’t believe that we will see that steep growth curve. But I think we’ve found the bottom and we’re crawling our way out.
If you look at Japan for example, it has been on the ropes for well over a decade and, while they’re not collapsing, they’ve struggled to find any growth and, in fact, have experienced stagnation. My fear is that Western economies may experience something similar to what Japan has been going through.
What we went through in 08/09 was globally cataclysmic – it could have been worse and the world escaped that poorer scenario by the skin of our teeth. In general, I can’t honestly say I see clear blue skies but I forecast fewer storm clouds.
IFI: What is Norwood doing to prepare for the next six to 18 months given your market projections?
AD: In a sense, our product line appeals to the current market better than the massive machines because they are more financially accessible. But that doesn’t mean we’re pulling back on our R&D – on the contrary, that is moving full steam ahead. We’re in a new era in which you have to work twice as hard to stay in the same place and four times as hard to enjoy any growth and take a step forward. Companies that have continued to work at the same rate as they were four years ago have either been very lucky or they’re not around anymore. So our R&D department is at full capacity and will be for the foreseeable future.
IFI: What can you tell me about what the Norwood R&D team is working on?
AD: I can’t tell you a lot – our competitors watch us like hawks!
IFI: As head of an international group you must travel a lot; do you have a favourite airport?
AD: I like Amsterdam because it’s particularly easy to get through; it’s well organised and run efficiently and smoothly. Zurich is actually pretty good too, for similar reasons.
IFI: Any you don’t like?
AD: I can’t stand Heathrow.
IFI: All terminals?
AD: Heathrow drives me bonkers. I think it may have something to do with the UK’s refusal to sign on to the EU border control protocol, the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates internal EU border checks. When you get off the plane, you have to go through additional security lines, even if you’re only getting a connecting flight. There is a lot of extra processing.
IFI: Do you get a chance for the occasional holiday?
AD: You know what, I take days away from the office but I’m never out of touch. There isn’t a day that I won’t be on the emails or phone. For me, a holiday just means I’m not in the office and I only do a couple hours of work.
IFI: Is that a requirement for your position or for your personality?
AD: Probably a bit of both.
IFI: If you ever take two weeks off, where do you go?
AD: I never take two weeks off. I’ll take a few days at most. The most I’ve done is a week – five working days – and that’s decadent. And again, that’s with the laptop and Blackberry. I’ll sometimes take my family away for a week or combine some holiday-time overseas with a business trip. So I’ll be meeting whoever in Europe and then we’ll have a few family days in Amsterdam or Zurich or wherever. It’s good to do it that way.
IFI: Have you always been like that?
AD: Yes. You know, I don’t mind work. I get a lot of satisfaction out of my work; that’s something that my personality craves. There are times, of course, you wish you could just walk away; those are the days when all hell is breaking loose. But, generally speaking, there’s a heck of a lot of satisfaction in moving the company forward.
Originally published in the April/May 2013 Edition of International Forest Industries