Cutting down on unsustainable wood

Scott Sargent (left) and Stuart Prior are the inventors of an innovative, forest-saving wood treatment process

Scott Sargent (left) and Stuart Prior are the inventors of an innovative, forest-saving wood treatment process

What if you could turn sustainably sourced softwood into hardwood and only be able to tell it apart from the price? This is exactly what entrepreneurs Scott Sargent and Stuart Prior have done — and they are ready to manufacture Rhino Modified Wood (RMW) for South Africa and beyond. The company is the brainchild of Scott Sargent (37) and Stuart Prior (29), who found a way to combine a wax waste product with plentiful softwood to replicate the properties of much less sustainable — and much more expensive — hardwood timber.

Having perfected their proprietary process, and with a few high-profile projects under their belt to prove the product, they have recently finished expanding their factory. They are ready to tackle the outdoor timber market, estimated to be around 2 000 cubic metres of wood per month. Their aim is to conquer 20% of this market in the next three years.

Sargent (37) grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was an avid sportsman at his school, St Stithians College. His penchant for business shone through while studying towards his economics degree at the University of Cape Town. Scott was involved in a few small businesses that ranged from selling T-shirts to catering for hungry students. He moved back to Johannesburg in search of the next step in his entrepreneurial career, gaining extensive experience in the IT and art sectors, and building several businesses that combined asset registration and art market data with technology.

Prior (29) was also born in Johannesburg, but attended boarding school in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. After completing a BCom at Rhodes University, he took up a position at the Bank of New York in London. In 2010 he returned to South Africa and joined the family business (wax processing), in which both his father and Scott’s father are partners. In 2011, when he and Sargent were developing the prototype for RMW, Stuart enrolled at the Gordon Institute of Business Science to study towards his MBA in entrepreneurship and further develop his business skills. Once he had completed this, Rhino Modified Wood was formally registered and both Prior and Sargent dedicated themselves full time to the business.

Prior and Sargent, while being involved with their families’ business, discovered that an unused wax that was being dumped into landfills could be filtered and re-engineered into a wax blend that had very special qualities. They later remembered an older technology for impregnating timber and how no one, to their knowledge, had done it with a high-melting-point majority wax blend. After months of research and development, adding an additional process of heating the timber under very specific conditions, they were able to produce the first prototype of what later that year won the WWF’s Climate Solver Award.

Despite the success of the pair’s research, Prior says: “In South Africa, there is very little support structure for scientific evaluation of innovations. Testing materials and institutes are outdated or non-existent.” He suggests that the government should consider subsidising the testing of local innovations in better-equipped foreign facilities.

Hoping to become fully fledged green entrepreneurs, the pair established Rhino Modified Wood to commercialise the invention, and the product, manufacturing process and ingredients were patented. A dedicated manufacturing facility was then established in Johannesburg to service the local and international market. Approximately 600-700 cubic metres of their modified wood are currently used in a variety of construction applications, but the most popular application is decking material. The wood has been used in several major projects, including Matlonsana Mall in Klerksdorp, and Little Vumbura Plains Wilderness Camp in the Okavango Swamps of Botswana.

The vast majority of the decking, cladding and flooring wood market in South Africa is dominated by imported timbers, which are expensive and often come from endangered sources. RMW’s product has the same qualities as this imported hardwood: it is strong, hard, durable, low maintenance and is not recognised by woodborers and termites as a food source. However, it is much more sustainable and it is produced in a much more environmentally friendly way than other modified woods. It is also non-toxic and is disposable. “We have a created a truly innovative product in a traditionally conservative industry,” says Sargent.

Beyond decking and cladding, RMW hopes to take advantage of other opportunities for its wood to be used in substructure, furniture, joinery and railway sleepers, to name but a few. The product is currently sold as a commodity, following a traditional model where RMW manufactures and delivers to a merchant, who finishes the timber to the customer’s exact requirements. This commodity model means that the wood can easily be brought to international markets in the future.

Both entrepreneurs are dedicated to building RMW into a major international supplier of modified wood. Their intention is, in time, to expand into Europe and other markets, where they can fetch even higher prices and source an abundance of raw material. Key strategic decisions lie ahead and Endeavor is ideally positioned to assist them with their growth trajectory. Scott and Stuart would benefit greatly from services such as an advisory board to assist them with the key decisions ahead in their attempt to market RMW in South Africa and scale their business internationally.

Sargent knows that they have something good to offer. “By offering an alternative to tropical hardwoods and reducing the need to cut down natural forests we are blending business with offering a sustainable product that is better for all. That kind of mix makes one feel good about what one is doing.”

Find out more about Rhino Modified Wood at