Obituary: George Donaldson, businessman who raised Scotland’s reputation in timber trade

George Donaldson, timber merchant
George Donaldson, timber merchant
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George Donaldson, timber merchant. Born: 2 April ,1926, in Lundin Links, Fife. Died: 29 September, in Upper Largo, Fife, aged 90

The Fife-born businessman George Donaldson raised not only his long-established local family company’s reputation, but Scotland’s, in the UK-wide timber trade.

He was only the second Scottish merchant in a century to become president of the London-based Timber Trade Federation, and for his services to the industry was appointed, in 2000, CBE.

James Donaldson and Sons was established in Tayport in Fife in 1860 to import Scandinavian spruce and pine. George Donaldson transformed the business by setting up a wood-engineering division and greatly expanding operations , first across Scotland, then, via operations in Newcastle and Derbyshire, to within 15 miles of the Channel coast in Kent.

The company, which still used horses when he joined it in 1948, swelled in his time to become a group, and employed computer technology, emerging as one of Britain’s main suppliers of timber engineered into roof-trusses, ”i”-joists, floor-cassettes and spandrel-panels.

Donaldson’s chairmanship of the firm, from 1971 to 2001, began with a disaster when, on 16 July 1971 the sawmill in Leven which the firm had owned since 1889 went up in flames.

“That’s the only time I’ve seen him near to looking stressed,” a family member, who saw the blaze, recalled. The fire was said to be the biggest in the history of the kingdom of Fife.

Having modernized all the equipment, however, Donaldson was ready when a few years later a local builder asked him if the company could make roof trusses for a small housing development. It did – and by September 1978 had set up a plant to make them.

Within a year the company was producing 1,300 roof trusses a month – and Donaldson gave himself the goal of supplying a quarter of the Scottish market in two years. He achieved it – and the five-generation-old family business for the first time set foot south of the Border. It now has more than 20 establishments, from Newcastle upon Tyne to Ashford in Kent.

Donaldson handed over the running of the business to his son Neil in 1985, the year he became Timber Trade Federation president. He had already served as President of the Scottish Timber Trade Association from 1978-80, and from 1980-82 as President of TRADA, the industry’s international Timber Research and Development Association.

A sprightly, cheery figure who inspired great loyalty and is remembered affectionately by timber trade staff across Britain, Donaldson was an elder of the Kirk, living all his married life at Upper Largo in Fife.

He married, in 1953, Fiona Todd, and they had two sons: Neil, who is the fifth eldest son in direct line from the company’s founder, to be chairman; and Graham, who became a journalist, working at The Scotsman and later as a television political editor.

George Neilson Donaldson was born a mile from Upper Largo on the coast at Lundin Links, where, aged six, he met his future wife, daughter of a local GP and then aged two, at play on its magnificent sandy beach.

He was educated at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, where he enjoyed cricket. In 1944 he went on to Mons Officer Cadet School at Aldershot, and in early 1945 was commissioned into the Black Watch.

The young man’s hopes of action with his unit in the Far East were dashed when he broke his leg during training in Britain. After recovering he was sent instead to Egypt, to spend his national service in the Nile delta attempting, at great risk to his own health, to eradicate malarial mosquitos. Visiting Jerusalem on leave in July 1946, he was lucky to miss the bombing of the King David Hotel that month in which 91 people died.

Bodily hazard was to continue in his life when, returning home to learn the timber trade, he was sent to Sweden to toil through the winter with forest workers. He disliked the diet of smoked salmon, but became fluent in Swedish.

The company, which had done well in the First World War supplying wood for government-ordered huts, and during the Second had weathered official restrictions, wasted no time in the 1950s in buying a second site in Leven, Elm Park. In 1957 George Donaldson tried out a fork-lift truck, and the company became, it is believed, the first Scottish timber-merchant to use the new machinery, greatly increasing productivity.

George Donaldson succeeded his father Victor as managing director in 1969, and would live to see the company’s 150th anniversary in 2010, which brought a visit to Elm Park by the Duke of York. His wife Fiona died in 2009; his sons survive him.

The feel and properties of wood, which he loved, was not Donaldson’s only expertise. In the evenings at home, it is remembered, he enjoyed doing fine needlework. He had learned, while convalescing after his army injury, how to make tapestries, and would sit at a stretched frame, intent on the intricate work of his own design, which often featured flowers from his garden. A single piece two feet across might take him two years to finish – and would afterwards be treasured by avid collectors among his wide acquaintance.

ANNE KELENY