125 years for Geo Parkes
If entrepreneurial longevity is a measure of success, then Geo Parkes and Sons has stood and even surpassed the test of time.
Deeply rooted in the greater Knysna community, synonymous with both its famed natural forests and rich historical heritage, Geo Parkes and Sons this month celebrated a rare legacy of 125 years as one of the country’s oldest family-run timber merchants.
Founded in 1892 by George Parkes, the company has been managed by members of the same family for four generations and is today headed by Parkes descendants, including the firm’s chairman Ivor Morgan and Howard (Jim) James Parkes, who serves as the company’s managing director.
Among a host of accolades, contributions to infrastructure and the economy, and other achievements, the company lays claim to being owners and environmental custodians of the largest tracts of natural forests in South Africa that are in private hands. Geo Parkes can also boast pioneering the country’s timber export trade by sending boxwood to England and France for use in the weaving industry.
Recounting the origins of the firm’s extensive history, Parkes, 71, said the firm’s founder George Parkes, who was chairman of A& F Parkes – an edge tool manufacturing company based in Birmingham, England at the time – had come to South Africa in 1891 to visit customers.
“He travelled over primitive roads, down the old Phantom Pass and then over the crumbling stone causeway over the Knysna River to reach the small coastal town.
“After completing his business, George decided to continue his journey to Port Elizabeth by sea. As luck would have it, the bar at the Heads was up and no steamer could leave the harbour. This meant that he had to spend three extra days in Knysna, and this was when he learnt that an indigenous forest and a sawmill situated in the centre of the town were up for sale,” he explained.
Today Geo Parkes, whose natural forests and plantation have been FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified for the past seven years, focuses its operations primarily on the supply of pine sawlogs and poles to its clients, while it continues to harvest timber in the natural forest with permits issued by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).
“All the main activities of the plantation – from planting of pine seedlings, to thinning and clearfelling – are carried out by the company’s own staff who prepare the timber to be sold in either log form or in kiln-dried planks through the country and abroad,” explained Parkes, who said the firm employed 40 permanent workers and scores more from the local community on a contractual basis.
He named the indigenous hardwoods harvested in the natural forest as Stinkwood, Yellowwood, White Pear, Hard Pear, Candlewood, Ironwood, Witels and Cape Holly.
“Blackwood – an exotic species planted in the natural forests many years ago to supplement the supply of indigenous hardwoods that were being heavily harvested at the time – are also made available by the company, along with other rare species, from time to time,” he said.
The largest section of Parkes Forest forms part of the lush indigenous forest which, along with the iconic Knysna elephants, made the Knysna area famous.
Geo Parkes’s company logo carries an image of an elephant, while its operations, which include 2 800ha of natural forest, as well as 600ha of pine and gum, is situated north of the town and next to thousands of hectares of nationally protected conservation areas.
The company’s Hoogekraal estate north of Sedgefield comprises 1 850ha of mainly pine, along with some natural forest patches.
“These estates are one of the few natural forests in South Africa where harvesting of indigenous hardwoods is permitted.
“The forests are legally protected for conservation purposes and harvesting takes place under special licence from DAFF, in accordance with the timber yield regulation system,” Parkes said.
“This means that trees may only be harvested that are already dying, and only low-impact felling and log extraction methods may be used.”
With the natural hardwood timber sold under the company’s Knysna Woods brand, the firm’s experienced staff are able to advise furniture makers and interior designers how different types of wood behave and their responses to different finishings and applications.
George Parkes and Sons continues to operate from its head office at 1 St George’s Street, Knysna, which is a historic building built in 1924.