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Emma Woods standing outside her sawmill
April 2016
Reading time 12 minutes

Entrepreneur Emma Woods gave up her dream job at Buckingham Palace to buy a sawmill in Helmsley

This is the amazing story of how she ended up building 18-foot catapults, collaborating with Stella McCartney and appearing on the 2016 New Year Honours List.

An expert in antique silver, Emma Woods spent the first half of her life building up a career in London, finally acquiring her dream job – cataloguing the Queen’s silver for the Royal Collection. So you can imagine her dismay when her husband announced that he wanted to uproot her and her two young children (aged one and three at the time) and transport them to rural Yorkshire. ‘I’d always lived in cities so it was completely different coming to the countryside and moving to a small village,’ Emma recounts. Little did she know how different her life would be.

Shortly after arriving in Helmsley, Emma and her husband received a letter to say that Duncombe Sawmill (where her husband sourced timber for his new job as a land agent) was closing down. It felt hugely significant to the couple. ‘Historically there had been three sawmills in Helmsley and this was the last one,’ she explains. ‘If it had gone then it would have been a real loss to the area.’ So despite having never worked with timber, never run a sawmill or indeed any business, they decided to buy it.

‘It was a spur of the moment decision,’ she says. ‘We thought about it, thought “Yeah, let’s give it a go,” and then the reality hit a short time afterwards that actually it was a big challenge we’d taken on and neither of us had any experience.’

To make matters worse, Emma’s husband was working full-time, so she was left to run a one-woman mill – literally, she was the first woman to have ever worked there. And like most fairytales (I promise this one has a happy ending), the road ahead was far from clear; the business was making a loss. ‘The prices hadn’t been put up for 10 to 15 years,’ Emma laments, ‘And there was no real invoicing or accounting system in place.’

But where the previous owners had admitted defeat, Emma was willing to fight. With help from her friends, family and employees, Emma began to master the business, asking her sawmill manager Chris Storey questions as she went along and enlisting the help of her father (an accountant) to help her manage the books. ‘Everybody was really supportive, but we did raise a few eyebrows,’ she laughs.

Then disaster struck. ‘We had a flash flood in 2006,’ Emma tells us. ‘It came up about 2-3ft in our joiner’s shop and went through the mill so every piece of timber – and we have thousands – was covered in silt and sludge. We lost a lot of machinery as the motors were destroyed and our joiner’s shop was out of action for about 10 weeks. This was in June when we were busy with orders but we couldn’t make anything. It was a nightmare.’

Again, Emma’s grit and determination saw them through, and now with the weather on their side (notwithstanding the odd iced-over workshop) the business is going from strength to strength. They’ve started selling to members of the public as well as trade customers, created their own timber-framed shop (naturally), built an international clientele and expanded their product range.

‘We get all sorts of different requests, which is fun,’ Emma explains. ‘People come in with requests for things that they can’t get elsewhere: hedgehog boxes, special owl boxes, floating duck houses, cowboy and Indian forts... We had one customer who wanted us to make a trebuchet. They’ve now got an18ft-long giant catapult in their garden that they fire goodness knows what from.’

She also put her antique knowledge to good use, sourcing historic gate designs that they can replicate for old houses and designing bespoke planters. And in 2014 they produced a wooden gate for use in a Stella McCartney fashion show. It’s fair to say Emma is now a full-on timber convert: ‘I permanently notice timber now. It’s lovely going for a walk in the North York Moors National Park and seeing our gates – they’re all badged up – and if I’m driving along and I pass a smart fence, I have to stop the car and take some photos’.

With Duncombe Sawmill now thriving, Emma could be forgiven for resting on her laurels, but this is hardly the attitude of this hard-working mover and shaker. She’s working to push the business forward with a new product range for 2016 (which will hopefully include new flood barriers to prevent her and her neighbours’ properties from being devastated by extreme weather again) and she’s determined to bring the rest of Helmsley with her.

‘Being part of a community is very important to me, and at the sawmill we try to do as much locally as we can,’ she explains. ‘The majority of timber we use is local, it comes from a 20-mile radius, and we use local suppliers as much as possible.’

In 2013 Emma became the treasurer of Helmsley In Business, a group of local business owners who help to advise and support one and other, and who successfully staged a campaign recently which saw the town win the title of Great British High Street’s Best Market Town. ‘It’s really lovely how everybody works together,’ she coos. ‘It’s those old-fashioned, traditional values of looking out for one another and helping each other.’

When asked about her success Emma repeatedly says she was lucky – ‘I was lucky, people were very supportive’ – but we think it has more to do with her. She bought a failing sawmill for the good of her area, fights to maintain traditional values and supports fellow business owners at all costs. Her reward? An MBE in the 2016 New Year Honours. It seems the Queen agrees with us.

Duncombe Sawmill
York YO62 5DQ
01439 770234

‘People come in with requests for things that they can’t get elsewhere: hedgehog boxes, special owl boxes, floating duck houses, cowboy and Indian forts’

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