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Owner of Duncombe Sawmill awarded MBE in New Year Honours

A Helmsley businesswoman has been awarded an MBE for services to rural business and skills in North Yorkshire.

Emma Woods, owner of Duncombe Sawmill, is in this year’s New Year’s Honours list and will be invited to Buckingham Palace for an investiture ceremony in 2016.

With no previous industry experience, Emma took over the sawmill in 2003 as it faced closure and has spent the past decade making it what it is today: a niche timber business which prides itself on manufacturing good quality British products and offering outstanding customer service. By taking on the business Emma, 48, ensured valuable skills, passed down through generations for well over a century, were not lost forever.

Today the sawmill employs a team of eight people and enjoys a reputation for sourcing British timber to create gates, fencing, outdoor furniture and timber framed buildings using traditional woodworking techniques. Clients include the North York Moors National Park Authority, the Forestry Commission and London Fashion Week.
The start of Emma’s career saw her studying antiques at Leeds University and then moving to London to inventory the Queen’s silver at the Royal Collection. In 2003, having moved back to Yorkshire and as a customer of Duncombe Sawmill, she received a letter saying the 100 year old business was closing unless a buyer could be found.

Emma, who lives in Kirkbymoorside, explains: “My husband and I decided to take the sawmill on, which at the time was a risky decision as neither of us had ever worked in a business environment before or knew anything about timber.  But it just seemed so sad that this historic business was going to close. There had been three sawmills in Helmsley and now there was potentially going to be none. My husband had a full time job so it fell to me to work in the business. The first couple of years were extremely hard work and there were plenty of challenges – learning about timber and sawmilling, introducing computers and a modern accounting system and in 2006 we had a flash flood which ruined most of the machinery.

“I decided to concentrate on our core strengths which were making high quality, bespoke gates and fencing from locally sourced FSC timber and milling timber to order. We manufacture items that people can’t get elsewhere. We concentrate on customer care and we have expanded our market, selling out of Yorkshire, and now have customers in Scandinavia, France and Germany, and much of the UK.  This year we have opened a trade counter selling everything you need to install and maintain your fence or garden furniture and we have started producing timber framed buildings.  We have a new range of products in the pipeline for 2016, so as well as retaining our traditional values, the business is always moving forward.”

When she took the sawmill over, Emma became the first woman to work in the business – although the team now comprises equal numbers of both sexes. In 2009 Emma was proud to be awarded Entrepreneur of the Year in the Yorkshire Rural Awards and in 2013 became treasurer of the local Helmsley in Business group, which brings together more than 50 independent businesses in the town to promote each other and the local area. The group recently ran a campaign which saw Helmsley win the Great British High Street’s Best Market Town award.

Emma continues: “Chris Storey, the sawmill manager, and his predecessor Steve Arnold, have taught me a lot about timber. Chris’ daughter also works with me – the third generation of the same family to have worked here. In fact several members of staff have been at the sawmill for over 25 years.

“I am extremely honoured and thrilled to have been given this award – there aren’t really the words to explain how I am feeling! The sawmill is a huge part of my life and means so much to me. I am extremely lucky to have very loyal customers and a wonderful team, who deserve as much of the credit for this award as I do.”

For more information about Duncombe Sawmill, please visit: www.duncombesawmill.co.uk

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