Ever since the word got out that eco timber is available right here in Vietnam, Tau Van Ngo, Brokopondo Lakewood’s head of Vietnam operation, has been fielding calls from local hoteliers and developers anxious to secure a sustainable source of wood for upcoming projects.
Their excitement is justified. Unlike conventional aboveground harvesting that contributes to deforestation and global warming, Lakewood’s timber comes from the trees that were taken out of the carbon cycle 70 years ago.
We catch up with the Dutch-born executive at Lakewood’s new showroom in Saigon’s District 7 to learn more about the environmental advantages of Lakewood’s harvesting method, what makes reservoir wood so durable, and why it’s a good choice for eco-conscious customers.
Brokopondo Lakewood’s timber is known as “wood with a story”. What is the story exactly?
About 70 years ago, a US company mining bauxite in Suriname, South America, built a hydro plant to power their operation. The 150,000-hectare area that was earmarked for flooding was mostly forested land but instead of cutting the trees, they left the jungle standing. And so for 70 years this enormous underwater forest just sat there, largely forgotten. That changed when Brokopondo Lakewood got the exclusive rights to “fish” for these high-value logs.
Why is reservoir wood considered so valuable?
As they are not exposed to oxygen or pests, the trees are very well preserved and extremely hardy. On top of that, reservoir wood has a unique patina. And for many of our clients, there’s also the fact that we offer a sustainable source of hardwood.
Carbon constitutes approximately 50% of the dry mass of trees, and when you manufacture wood products, the carbon is stored for life in them. It’s only through burning or decay that it can be released back into the atmosphere.
We supplied wooden decking for Amanoi resort in Vinh Hy Bay and just recently signed a contract with a 5-star resort on Con Dao, two of the most exclusive resorts in Vietnam who put high value on sustainability. They came to us for the solid quality and reasonable prices, but of course the story of Brokopondo Lake and its buried treasure is a bonus for an industry such as hospitality.
How did your love affair with timber start?
My background is in management consulting, operations excellence and investment. The timber phase of my professional life started quite recently, with a trip to Suriname on the invitation of Lakewood – a nightmarish 24-hour journey from Vietnam via Amsterdam. The lake simply blew my mind. I fell in love with the story and the sustainability part of the business.
Occupying around 1% of the country, the reservoir is so big, it feels like a sea. It’s dotted with these little islands, and you don’t realize what they are until it dawns on you that you are looking at mountain tops. Also you have to use a special boat to navigate Brokopondo because floating logs are a real hazard if you are not an experienced seaman.
How are Lakewood’s harvesting process and supply chain organized?
We have three professional diving teams going up to 15 meters below the surface looking for the biggest, most beautiful logs that are then transferred to our sawmill by the lake. We employ over 100 locals who process the reclaimed wood before the choicest pieces are shipped to Vietnam to be turned into wooden decking, furniture, or decor pieces that are then sold to clients in Europe, Australia, the US, or domestically.
Our Vietnamese team is 15-strong. They mostly manage projects and work on original design concepts that, once samples have been approved by clients, are outsourced to big factories. While we focus on marketing, R&D, and innovation.
And why did you choose Vietnam as your manufacturing base?
Because we wanted the highest yield possible for our wood. In addition to the head office in Suriname, there’s also a sales office in Dubai and a sales and manufacturing facility in Vietnam. Vietnam has a long tradition of timber production and some very experienced craftsmen who can turn any piece of wood into art.
In Suriname, only 30-40% of the log is used, the rest is waste; whereas here, besides the decking, which is our main product, we can produce exquisite furniture, cutting boards, vases. That’s using up to 60% of the log to manufacture our products, plus then selling another 20-30% of the log to pallet makers in the form of sawdust. There’s very little waste.
Being based in Vietnam, do you draw inspiration from local crafts and traditions or your designs are international?
I grew up in Holland, so my own taste skews Scandinavian. Most of Lakewood designs are likewise minimalistic, clean, and not fussy. But although we certainly have our own style, we are demand-driven.
In Vietnam, for example, purple heartwood is extremely popular because it has this rich hue that occurs naturally, and Asians love it. When local retail customers come to our showrooms, they are immediately drawn to purple heart furniture. They usually order customized pieces, but to be able to touch and feel the wood first is important to them. With international clients ordering hardwood flooring, on the other hand, our retail brochure is our main sales tool.
You ship to so many different climate zones. How do you deal with shrinkage and expansion?
We use kiln drying. Fresh wood, when you cut it, has high water content. Once you put it into a kiln, you can adjust moisture content, depending on the country you’re shipping to. For Dubai, for instance, you need moisture content to be below 10%. For Europe, up to 16% is OK; same as Vietnam.
Since the pandemic hit and supply changes have been affected, what sort of opportunities have come around in Vietnam?
We are still export-driven but as we start selling more furniture, our customers in the US, Australia, and Europe want to come and see our samples in person. With decking, it’s quite easy to ship a sample, but with furniture, it’s tricky, especially if the client requests tweaks to the original design.
So, my focus in 2021 will be on adding showrooms in key cities in Vietnam: Nha Trang, Danang, Hanoi, and possibly Phu Quoc. In Saigon, in addition to the new showroom in D7, we have a warehouse in D9 where we test our new products; that’s why I call it our “manufacturing resort”. Plus a showroom inside one of Tavico’s wholesale stores in Ho Nai, one of the biggest wood manufacturing companies in Vietnam.
My objective is to have a comprehensive network of showrooms in place by the end of the year to better meet the needs of our local and international clients.