Company History

Working in the timber industry for over 150 years

Over 150 years in business

James Donaldson & Sons Ltd is a highly successful family company and celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010.

In the last 150 years, James Donaldson & Sons Ltd has grown to become one of the UK's leading independent processors, manufacturers and distributors of timber and engineered timber products. From one small branch in Fife, Scotland, Donaldson's has become a nationwide group with 23 operating branches across the UK as well as its Head Office in Scotland.

James Donaldson & Sons Ltd comprises four first class companies: timber importer and distributor James Donaldson Timber Ltd (JDT), engineered wood product manufacturer Donaldson Timber Engineering Ltd (DTE), timber merchant MGM Timber (Scotland) Ltd and hardwood supplier Parker Kislingbury Ltd (PK).

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Chairman Timeline

History Timeline

Family Business


The company is currently chaired by the fifth generation of the Donaldson family, Neil Donaldson, with four family members involved in the business. Neil's father, George Donaldson is honorary president of the company, and Neil's two sons are also working within James Donaldson & Sons Ltd. Neil's eldest son Michael has worked with the company for eight years, and is General Manager of one of the Donaldson Timber Engineering Ltd branches. Neil's youngest son Andrew joined the company in 2010 from accountancy firm KPMG, and is now working as a Management Trainee.

Control of the business has passed directly from father to son throughout the 150 years, and this is a trend which looks set to continue. As current Chairman and Chief Executive Neil Donaldson explains, "My vision for the future is to build on the solid platform which exists today. Today's managers are merely custodians for the managers of tomorrow. It is our responsibility to hand over the business in stronger shape than it was when we assumed responsibility."

James Donaldson & Sons Ltd has proved itself to be a very strong business, never more so than during the recession of the past three years, which has hit the housing market hard. Under these circumstances the business has remained remarkably resistant and outperformed many. Not only has it survived, but is has also made a profit.

As a family business, James Donaldson & Sons Ltd has a real family ethos which is highlighted by the trust, loyalty and long-service of its employees. Within the company, a number of employees have enjoyed 25 years of service, and in 2010 Donaldson's longest-serving employee made it to 50 years in service. Remarkably, he has celebrated the company's 150th anniversary, 125th anniversary, and even the 100th anniversary. Examples like this demonstrate what kind of company James Donaldson & Sons is to work for: one where you also feel a part of the family; where you are respected; and where you want to stay.

James Donaldson & Sons History

  • 1860: Beginnings

    The James Donaldson & Sons story begins in Tayport, 1860, on the opposite bank of the river Tay from the busy industrial port of Dundee.

    The company started life as a timber merchant, run by James Donaldson along with his two sons, James and George, importing a wide variety of timber - mainly red and white wood deals and battens - from Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic.

    James Donaldson & Sons first expanded in 1889, when it acquired Leven saw mills by the small port of Leven on the Firth of Forth. Business expanded rapidly at Leven, and performed well during the First World War, benefiting from some large transactions for timber for Government hutting in 1914-1915.

  • Post War 1919

    In 1919 record sales, profits and prices were being achieved and it was decided by George Donaldson to convert the partnership into a limited liability company, and so James Donaldson & Sons Ltd was born.

    At this time, George Donaldson also decided to give five loyal and senior employees the opportunity of taking shares in the company, a concept which the company still believes in to this day.

    Timber during the 1920s continued to come mainly from Scandinavia and the Baltic. Small amounts came from North America and some also came from the new republic of Czechoslovakia. Russia began to make a greater impression on the market from the mid 1920s onwards.

  • World War II

    The Second World War made a big impact on Donaldson's; imports were kept to a minimum and Methil and Tayport docks concentrated on wartime activities. The Timber Control was established immediately and the Ministry of Supply became the sole supplier of timber; stocks were sold at fixed maximum prices and consumer sales were made by permit only.

    A partial relaxation of controls was phased in from 1950. Softwood importers were able to import freely on their own account from the Baltic and certain other countries. James Donaldson & Sons at once began to place forward orders for softwoods.

  • 1950 - 1970

    In 1955, Donaldson's acquired Elm Park, an eleven acre site in Leven, which provided additional space for stacking timber. The company was trying to achieve greater efficiency in its operations, and in 1957, Donaldson's became the first Scottish timber company to buy a fork lift truck which was used to handle timber at the Elm Park site. There was an immediate and striking improvement in productivity.

    The opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964 also provided the impetus for an expansion of the company's sales territories, including Edinburgh and the Borders, Oban and Fort William.

    George Donaldson took over from his father Victor as Managing Director in 1969 and took the opportunity to encourage a move towards centralised management of the business. Central departments, one set of books, a joint sales effort and each mill operating as production units led to significant trading improvements.

  • 1970s: the changing face of Donaldson's

    1971 proved to be a landmark year in the history of the business, with the redevelopment of the firm's Leven operations following a fire at the Leven timber yard. A new softwood mill was constructed at Elm Park with offices, kiln-drying and hardwood operations on the Wemyss site in Leven.

    Following the death of Victor Donaldson and retirement of Reg Donaldson from day to day business, George Donaldson took over the running of the business, and in 1975, George's eldest son Neil joined the company.

    In September 1978, a roof truss manufacturing plant was set up; an idea which had originated when a local builder approached the company asked Donaldson's to make him a few trusses for the houses he was building. One year later 1,300 roof trusses were being sold each month. By 1985 the business was seeking to increase its market share to 25% of the Scottish market, employing more sophisticated equipment and seeking new and larger premises.

  • 1980s: Expansion and Independence

    Neil Donaldson became Managing Director in 1985, leaving George Donaldson able to accept the invitation to become the first Scottish merchant to hold office as President of the Timber Trade Federation (TTF). George was heavily involved with the industry's trade associations. He was President of the Scottish Timber Merchants' & Sawmillers' Association in 1975-1977, held office as President of the Scottish Timber Trade Association in 1978-1980 and was Chairman of the industry research and development association TRADA in 1980-1982.

    As time went on, it was clear that Donaldson's roof truss manufacturing business needed larger premises and a different structure to achieve its aim of becoming the most important supplier of roof trusses in Scotland. Greater autonomy was also required to distinguish it from its parent, to create its own identity and to develop it in its own right as a timber engineering business. On 1 July 1986 it was established as a limited company and became Donaldson Timber Engineering Ltd (DTE), as it is known today. By the late 1980s, 15% of Donaldson's turnover came from DTE.

    Donaldson's fared better than its rivals during the 1980s. Many family businesses vanished, while others were swallowed up by larger national companies. Through this process and through their own successful growth, Donaldson's became a member of the premier league of Scottish timber companies.

  • 1990s: The James Donaldson Group

    In 1990 the structure of what was now the James Donaldson Group was altered with the creation of four divisions, encompassing DTE, JD Homecare, Timber and Central Services.

    In the early 1990s DTE expanded south of the border, with a unit established at Cramlington in Northumberland in 1992. Three years later DTE acquired a site at Ilkeston in Derbyshire. DTE then acquired the Oxford site in 1999, and a new site at Ashford in Kent in 2000. A sixth factory established in Andover on the south coast in the summer of 2001 gave DTE the potential to achieve the same percentage share of the market south of the border as it had in Scotland.

    Scott Cairns was appointed to run Elm Park in 1996, and it became apparent that the site required further investment and further improvements in management. Considerable investment was made in improving the appearance as well as the performance of the site. The revival of the mill and yard was emphasised by doing for the timber side of the business what had been done for DTE. On 1 April 1998, the timber business became James Donaldson Timber Ltd (JDT).

    By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium, the James Donaldson Group was one of Scotland's leading timber companies and a major force in UK roof truss manufacturing. It had achieved all this while remaining absolutely committed to family ownership. Many other family firms with a similar commitment to remaining independent had been much less successful, but the Donaldson family recognised that a family owned business still required professional managers to flourish.

  • 2000: The Dawn of a New Era

    In the summer of 2001 George Donaldson stepped down from chairmanship of the Group after 30 years. Under his direction, he had begun the process of transforming Donaldson's from a family owned and family run timber merchant into a family owned and professionally managed timber business. George Donaldson also extended to the UK timber industry itself where the wide respect in which he was held was marked by the award of the CBE in the summer of 2000.

    In 2001, the Donaldson Group took a 50% interest in hardwood business Parker Kislingbury Ltd in Brill, Buckinghamshire, which became a wholly owned part of the Group in 2006.

    Similarly, in 2002, Donaldson's invested in Perth-based timber merchant, MGM Timber (Scotland) Ltd, and by 2005, MGM Timber was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Donaldson Group, with ten branches across Scotland. Today MGM has 13 branches across Scotland, and has grown to become the largest independent timber merchant in Scotland.

    In 2008, Donaldson's acquired a site in Chorley, Lancashire from Palgrave Brown which had gone into administration. Donaldson's started the site up trading under its original name of Alfred Hulme until 2009 when the site was re-branded as a branch of James Donaldson Timber. JDT had begun developing sales in the north-east of England which was a key market for them. JDT saw the benefits of expanding into the North of England, and this move enhanced JDT's strategy to offer full UK coverage.

    The Group made impressive progress during the first decade of the new millennium. As well as organic growth, the Group expanded through a series of acquisitions and extended its coverage of the UK. Although the recession brought inevitable pain, the Group remained profitable and by the end of the decade the sixth generation, Michael and Andrew Donaldson, had become actively involved in the family business.

  • 150 Years in Business

    The Donaldson Group celebrated 150 years in business in 2010. The anniversary was marked by the setting up of the Donaldson Leadership Academy. On 14 July 2010, the company was visited by HRH the Duke of York in recognition of the 150th anniversary and to honour its contribution to the local economy and community and beyond.

Years History Portraits