Every Monday, we ask small businesses key questions. Here we speak to Dietrich Pannwitz, director of forestry and firewood firm Sylvestrus in North Kessock, near Inverness.
How and why did you start in business?
I grew up in Berlin, Germany, and moved to Scotland, aged 21, in 1991 to become a farmer. While fun when young, I realised working on someone else’s farm was not for the long-term. A chance meeting with senior forestry lecturer Ian Ross from Golspie in 1992 led to me studying at the Scottish School of Forestry in Inverness. I went on to work for a forestry company for seven years.
In 2004 I set up my own business, Sylvestrus, believing I could serve clients better under my own banner. All my old clients followed me into my new business and stayed with me, so maybe I was right.
How did you get to where you are today?
I hope by providing a great service. Avoiding the pub, gambling and fancy cars, and putting every hour/penny into the business over the past 19 years, I’ve used my contacts and superb contractors, plus some luck, to build the business up. It’s gone from having no yard, an old van and a few tools to where we are today. We now serve a wide range of clients and are diverse enough to weather many storms.
I have a BSc in forestry and conservation and am a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters which is the highest qualification you can gain.
Sylvestrus operates throughout the Highlands and Islands, Moray, Aberdeen, Perthshire and the Borders. Our core business is grant and subsidy applications, mapping, budgeting and creating new woodlands.
But we also harvest timber, trade in carbon rights and sell firewood. Later this month we will start selling Christmas trees.
I’m very excited to be the agent for Finnish log building company Pluspuu. It makes everything from offices to workshops, community hubs, hotels, staff accommodation and more in modular form. I use one as my new office/showroom – it’s brilliant and carbon friendly.
Who helped you?
Many kind people in the Highlands and Grampian have helped me over the years – customers, contractors, bosses and old-style Forestry Commission staff. Then there’s my family, especially my parents, former partner, brothers, son and friends.
I’ve also always had solid advice from the Federation of Small Businesses when facing hard challenges, not least new legislation.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
“Don’t worry about things you can’t control”. Of course, I worry about my friends and clients, and the hills and land, and I want to make the world a better place. But I try to focus my thoughts on the possible.
What is your biggest mistake?
Not thinking before I speak – a Pannwitz family failing. Hopefully, our son is wiser. But I firmly believe that we must challenge circumstances if we want to evolve and progress.
What is your greatest achievement?
Personally, it’s having a lovely son and great friends and family. Business-wise, it’s the pleasure I get when customers, contractors and the public are happy with our work. Many of them become friends.
How is your business managing rapidly rising costs and what should government do to help?
Labour, fuel and material prices have all increased by more than 20% in the past two years, and we’ve been forced to pass some of these costs onto our customers.
The Scottish Government should increase the grant support rate per hectare for tree planting to make it attractive again. Support has failed to keep pace with inflation. The government should also reduce the bureaucratic hurdles that stifle entrepreneurialism.
Meanwhile, the shortage of seasonal labour has badly affected all rural industries and the UK Government must address this quickly in order for us to survive and thrive.
What do you still hope to achieve?
To get more woodlands into active management, and convince the public that using timber and felling trees locally is good for the environment.
What do you do to relax?
Prune Christmas trees, or “forest bathing” as it’s called nowadays. I also enjoy cutting firewood and looking at my Highland cows. I love visiting friends and family in Germany and Scandinavia, and – time permitting – reading the Sunday paper, with a nice coffee.
What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on TV?
I have no time for TV.
What do you waste your money on?
Growing our own Christmas trees.
What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
Spend 15 minutes stretching, followed by porridge and a few coffees.
What do you drive and dream of driving?
Fancy sports cars would only give me a sore back. I stick to work vans but would like a nice new bicycle.