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Different Pallet Recyler Changed Focus, Climbed Up from Bottom
Texas Organization Provides Jobs, Training for Handicapped; Shop Equipped by Bronco, Smart Products
By Josie Schmidt
Date Posted: 3/1/2003
BAY CITY, Texas – Nearly every company that stays in business long enough goes through it: hard times, when the only thing that surpasses the misery of watching profit margins shrink and sales plummet is having to lay off employees. WhaMCo Pallet Company has gone through it, too.
Founded in 1996, WhaMCo is not your ordinary pallet recycling business. It is part of a larger organization that provides services to the physically or mentally handicapped. In 1984 the Association for Retarded Citizens created an organization called Matagorda Services, which takes its name from Matagorda County in southeast Texas.
Matagorda County and the community of Bay City, population about 18,000, are located in an agricultural region that produces mainly rice and other grains. Turf is another leading agricultural product, with about 20,000 acres under cultivation. The region also supports manufacturing businesses but suffers from fairly high unemployment.
Matagorda Services was formed to provide vocational training for mentally handicapped adults and prepare them for jobs in the community. It operates several other business organizations in addition to WhaMCo: a household recycling drop-off center, janitorial service, light assembly service, and a workshop that produces potpourri. Its business operations employ a combined 38 handicapped clients who are able to live in the community independently.
WhaMCo was launched by former Matagorda Services executive director Rhonda Vallely and Greg Crain, who, as operations manager, oversees all the various divisions of Matagorda Services. Greg submitted a grant request to the Bay City Community Development Corporation to help get the pallet recycling business started. "They gave us $63,000, which we used to purchase all our equipment," he said.
"We knew nothing about the pallet industry," said Greg. "We came into it blind and with no operating capital. Getting any kind of business established is difficult, but I think trying to be a major supplier to several different customers put too much pressure on our internal goals." The company was quickly in over its head, according to Greg, and hit rock bottom within two years.
Rhonda left the organization at that point, and Greg was named executive director. "I took a long, hard look at our mistakes," he said. "The only thing I did differently was to simplify our operations. We became a primary supplier of pallets for a select few customers and a secondary supplier for many. That took the pressure off all phases of our operation."
WhaMCo has grown substantially since then, according to Greg. The pallet recycling business employs nine handicapped clients, a shop foreman and part-time secretary. The company also recently added a position for marketing and community relations.
Bay City is somewhat remote, about 80 miles southeast of Houston and 100 miles north of Corpus Christi. "We really are the ‘lone wolf’ in terms of an established pallet repair facility," said Greg. At the same time, the region supports some chemical and plastics manufacturing businesses that rely on WhaMCo for recycled pallets.
Some of the manufacturers are more than customers, Greg noted. After he met with representatives of one company, they decided to donate surplus pallets to WhaMCo. Greg remembers with gratitude the deal they made. " ‘We have to sell these pallets to you,’ " they said, " ‘but we’ll sell them to you for $1 a truck-load.’ So I said, ‘Okay!’ " Most of the company’s surplus pallets have been used only once, and the cores are in very good condition.
The impetus behind the company’s generosity was a strong belief in WhaMCo’s mission to train and employ the handicapped. Other businesses also have donated surplus pallets to WhaMCo and rely on WhaMCo to supply the pallets they need.
Since it started, WhaMCo has leased a 4,500-square-foot building on three and a half acres of land in Bay City. Recently it purchased a 5,600-square-foot shop and a 5,000-square-foot office on four acres. Greg is planning to use all of the new space as WhaMCo’s growth continues.
WhaMCo remanufactures pallets from reclaimed stringers and deck boards and operates a pallet repair line and provides custom pallet repair services. It produces between 900-1,400 pallets per week and specializes in custom sizes, supplying about 24 custom pallet sizes. Nearly one-third of its production is the standard GMA pallet, and the next most common size is 42x42. The company’s repair operations use strictly recycled pallet components.
Incoming pallets are sorted into one of four categories as soon as they come off the truck, Greg explained. Ready-to-go pallets and pallets to be repaired are sorted out. The other two categories are pallets that will be dismantled for lumber and badly damaged pallets that will be recycled by grinding.
WhaMCo has a two-man, semi-automated repair operation. Roller conveyor is utilized so that workers can easily slide the pallet from one station to the next. A Bronco de-stacker dispenses pallets one at a time. The first stop is a Minick lead board remover, and the first worker removes any damaged leading edge deck boards or other damaged deck boards. The second worker fastens repair stock to the pallet and then moves it into a Bronco stacker.
The pallet remanufacturing operations rely on five Bronco semi-automated nailing systems. The Bronco equipment consists of a jig that is set at an angle to make it easier to insert components. Power nailing tools are suspended overhead from a balancer to reduce lifting and make them easier to use. Some of the Broncos are equipped with automatic stackers in the rear. The Bronco equipment has served WhaMCo’s operations well, said Greg.
For recovering pallet components, WhaMCo has a Smart Products band saw dismantler. Two employees operate the Smart machine, but only one handicapped worker at a time. The handicapped worker is always stationed on the side of the machine away from the cutting edge of the blade. "In seven years of using it, we have had no accidents with it," said Greg.
The Smart Products band saw dismantler has proven to be very durable and virtually trouble-free, according to Greg. "That’s about as tough a piece of machinery as you’ll find," he said. "We like it because it cuts the nails flush with the board, and we have not had any problems with it since we bought it."
The other machine in the lumber recovery operations is a Smart trim saw for cutting reclaimed deck boards and stringers to the correct length. The reclaimed material is used to supply the pallet repair line and the men assembling pallets on the Bronco equipment.
WhaMCo is equipped with a West Salem Machinery hopper-fed grinder with a 1-inch screen and also a magnetic head to remove nails. The grindings are used as raw material for another enterprise of Matagorda Services that makes potpourri products. Grindings also are donated to Bay City, which composts organic materials and gives the compost away free to its residents.
WhaMCo’s mission, said Greg, is "to provide a quality product while maintaining a morally correct competitive environment."
"Our business is real simple," he said. "We can make sure we have a quality product before it leaves here."
Most of WhaMCo’s handicapped employees are paid less than minimum wage by Matagorda Services. However, one of the company’s goals is to increase their wages above the minimum, said Linda Shrader, WhaMCo’s marketing and community relations representative.
"This depends on our success, not their success. They already are succeeding."
Linda’s sales and marketing efforts have brought a good response, according to Greg. She makes ‘cold calls’ on businesses, both by phone and making on-site visits.
Greg is an agricultural survey engineer by trade. For 19 years, he and his father have owned and operated a business that designs rice fields for irrigation. During the busy planting season, he takes a three-month leave of absence from Matagorda Services.
Greg is married, and his wife, Stephanie, teaches kindergarten. The couple has four Boston terriers and a border collie. They enjoy golfing together and also tending the horses and cattle on their farm.
"I am most proud of being in a position to create jobs for the mentally challenged where otherwise they would not have a job at all," said Greg. "You can tell they are proud of themselves."
Greg learned about the pallet industry the hard way. "I had no pallet experience before we started," he noted. "I burned a lot of midnight oil getting this pallet operation off the ground. But as far as looking back and maybe doing something different, I don’t think I would change a thing."
Handicapped Worker Finds Productive Home at WhaMCo
Murry Bunk may be mentally handicapped, but he has a heart of gold, and he’s a good worker. He is the first one to show up for work every day at WhaMCo Pallet, and he is as eager to start his job as a schoolboy is ready to play ball.
Many business owners probably would be happy to have him on the payroll. Murry is not just punctual; he works hard. Turning 59 has not slowed him down, either.
Murry learned about employment opportunities at WhaMCo and visited the company’s facilities to ask about a job. Now he is gainfully employed and is making a contribution to his community.
He was able to pass a driver’s license test, and as a delivery driver, has become the highest paid employee among his mentally challenged peers at WhaMCo. He is responsible for making all the company’s pick-ups and deliveries.
Murry is happy to work, and WhaMCo is pleased to have him as an employee. "Even when things slow down, Murry will hang around or call from home several times a day to see if we need to make any deliveries," said Greg Crain, executive director of Matagorda Services, which operates WhaMCo Pallet.
Murry was born mentally challenged to a farming couple, and his parents taught him the basics of farming and the value of hard work. He lived a sheltered life with them until they died when he was in his early 40s.
"When he came to us, he had no social skills," said Greg. "He was sheltered all his life, but being raised on a farm, he is mechanically inclined."
WhaMCo has six other handicapped employees. "We interview the (handicapped) applicants just like for any other job," said Linda Shrader, WhaMCo’s marketing and community relations representative. "Motivation and desire are the biggest consideration, and we always consider the safety issues first."
When Murry is asked what he likes best about working for WhaMCo, his answer makes perfect sense. "I like being able to drive the truck and go to places I have never been before," he said. It’s a job that fits him just right.