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The Right Moves: J.C. Pallet Adds Smart Equipment to Better Utilize Raw Material, New Blood Helps Company Grow
The Right Moves: Upgrading equipment unlocks potential to grow and better utilize waste material at J.C. Pallet. Company turns to Smart Products for notcher, chop saw and dismantler, eyes changes to repair facility as well.
By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 10/1/2015
The Right Moves:
Upgrading equipment unlocks potential to grow and better utilize waste material at J.C. Pallet. Company turns to Smart Products for notcher, chop saw and dismantler, eyes changes to repair facility as well.
BARHAMSVILLE, Virginia – New equipment, new blood in the business and a commitment to dependable service are powering growth at J.C. Pallet Co., which has locations in Virginia and North Carolina. The company has recently upgraded its Virginia plant with equipment from Smart Products, which has allowed it to turn waste wood into usable lumber.
The overall money and operations management of the company is led by Holly Miller-Bopp, president of J.C. Pallet. Her father, John Combs Sr., founded the company almost forty years ago when it started out making bed frames. Within the last decade, the company has adapted and has made even more strides in terms of improved automation over the last two years.
Holly explained, “Upgrading our equipment was a major step that needed to happen. I have been here 14 years and we have only bought one piece of machinery during that time. Sales have been pretty good for us, and we were financially able to look at moving forward with upgrading our equipment. And Smart Products had what we were looking for.”
Optimizing the Production Environment
Most recently the Virginia operation has added a Smart Products notcher, a chop saw and a dismantler with a 64-inch table capable of handling larger pallets.
Holly added, “We get so many straight runner pallets in here that not doing something with them was stupid. The Smart notcher has enabled us to build pallets for customers at the end of the day that we might otherwise not have been able to supply.”
Material that used to go into the grinder is now being turned into usable material to produce pallets. Company managers expect for the new equipment to pay for themselves in less than a few years. Holly boasted, “The Smart notcher is just awesome. It is the best piece of equipment that we have ever had.”
Holly’s husband, Larry Miller-Bopp, is vice president of sales at the company. He commented, “When we bought the notcher, everything changed. We have so much more usable material now. We have a 10,000 piece order today that would have been trash a few months ago.”
J.C. Pallet is truly a family business. Holly works in the business with her husband, Larry Miller-Bopp; her brother, Johnny Combs Jr.; her father, Johnny Combs Sr.; her mother Jo Ann Combs; and nephew, Alex Combs. The company has worked with Smart Products for years. Larry explained, “The reason we went with Smart in the first place years ago was the problem we ran into with our old bandsaws was that it was really difficult to find the bearings and repair components. The thing we like about the Smart equipment is that it uses standard parts that we can find at a local store. We don’t have to wait days or even a week to locate a special part.”
The company purchased a Smart chop saw to cut long stuff into runners. This unit can produce about 3,000 boards per day on the machine. Holly said that one of the advantages of the Smart chop saw is that the blade is enclosed and it is much safer to run than the old saw with faster production capabilities.
The facility has two older Smart bandsaw dismantlers, but they couldn’t accommodate larger sized pallets. So J.C. Pallet invested in a Smart dismantler with a 64-inch table. One building on the facility handles all the pallet tear down and lumber sizing. And a separate building is where pallet builders repair and build combo pallets by hand. Workers can repair/build 400-600 pallets per day. And the pallet repair facility has 10 work stations. Currently, these are scattered across the building.
Holly admitted the current configuration is a bit hectic and causes unnecessary work for forklift drivers. This is the next part of the operation to be optimized. Later this year, the company plans to move a conveyor it has on property to the center of the building and to align all the builders alongside the conveyor. Waste pallets would move down the conveyor to a radial stacker they are planning to purchase. Repaired or built pallets would be stacked to the side of each repair station.
Holly commented, “Ultimately, this is about making the repair line more efficient, and we hope this will help eliminate some of the overtime that they have. This will be less work on the builders and forklift drivers.”
Strong Female Leadership in a “Man’s World”
Years ago it was odd to see a woman in a top position of leadership in a pallet company. But it is starting to be more common. Johnny Combs Jr., a vice president in charge of the North Carolina branch, credited his sister with much of the turnaround at the Virginia location. He explained that he invited her to come into the business when some financial problems arose. Johnny said that his father had an incredible work ethic, but he trusted some employees that he probably shouldn’t have trusted, and this led to some financial problems.
Johnny called his sister to come see if she could help straighten things out. Holly recalled, “No, I never thought that I would be in pallets. I came on because there were some internal issues that my brother was concerned about some financial issues.”
It was her brother who had always worked in the business. He moved down to lead the North Carolina location when his sister came to the Virginia plant. Looking back over the last decade, Johnny said, “The biggest change for us is that we have some new blood in the business. My dad ran this place forever. He did a lot to get us where we are today. But we needed somebody to better manage the financial side of things. With the new blood coming in my sister and her husband, my son, they add new ideas and energy. Holly has done a great job with the money side of the business.”
Both Holly and Larry joined the company at a time of extreme transition. Larry laughed, “It was kind of wild. A month after we got married, we quit our jobs and started working here. We both had good jobs and jumped right in here at J.C. Pallet.”
John Combs Sr., still owns the company and stops by every day to make sure things are running right. But he has left most of the daily operations to his family and key staff.
Despite being a woman in an industry dominated by men, Holly has proven her metal. She spent time working in the plant before taking over the money management. She commented, “It didn’t matter that I was a girl. You go out there and build a pallet. You learn how to run the saw and bail cardboard.”
Holly explained that her management philosophy is that you can’t run a business if you don’t know what your employees are dealing with and how their jobs function. Everyone laughed that the only thing she never learned was how to connect the trucks and trailers. She declared, “I wanted them to teach me how to do that too, but everyone refused worried I would try to start driving the trucks.”
Family Commitment Means Quality and Service
Unlike major conglomerates where the bottom line is the only thing, Holly said that they value service and quality above everything else. She commented, “A lot of pallet companies focus on price. We center our business on a high level of service and quality going out the door. Today, we still have the very first customer that we ever had, and I don’t know if a lot of pallet companies can say that.”
She added, “That’s 40 years later… and we still have that customer…Our entire family is involved in this business. We have everything to lose if we can’t service customers. So failure is not an option for us.”
Keeping quality employees makes all the difference too. Larry stated, “We also don’t have the turnover rate that a lot of the conglomerates have. This means a stable workforce and consistent quality. We have workers who have been here 10-20 years or more.”
Fred Erskines, the Virginia plant manager has been with J.C. Pallet for over 30 years. This holds true with Ron Stewart, a company truck driver and two of their forklift operators, Harold Smith and John Morris. Being family doesn’t just mean relation by blood, at J.C. Pallet it is a dedication to commitment as shown by these employees.
From flexibility to work with employees to deal with family emergencies to strong pay and medical and dental benefits, J.C. Pallet strives to take care of its workers. A recent focus on upgrading equipment has helped to boost morale too.
The company recently switched to a new nail supplier, and this has paid off big in terms of productivity and reducing downtime. Johnny said, “Duo-Fast has been great. They keep our nail guns working well, and our guys all know they will come in each day and have equipment that works.”
Thanks to new equipment and better maintenance the plant efficiency has improved at both locations. Johnny added, “In the last five years, our people have improved production by 100%. Now it is not quite as hard for builders who work on a piece rate basis to make their money.”
Holly recently started a new venture called J.C. Mulch Inc., which processes waste wood into dry mulch. She said, “Customers tend to prefer mulch made from used pallets because the dry material will hold the dye better.”
The company currently does the first grind of the scrap pallets and is looking to add coloring in the future.
Even though J.C. Pallet is not a huge operation, it does a good job servicing customers through the Mid-Atlantic region. It produces 4,000 repaired pallets each day in its North Carolina facility and 5-6,000 per day in its Virginia plant.
It has focused solely on used pallets and works with other partners to supply new pallets. Johnny explained, “At one time we had a sawmill and could take a log and turn it into a pallet. We did that for a number of years. But it got to be that only the new pallet focused companies could do that successfully.”
As the industry moved more toward recycled pallets, J.C. Pallet did the same. Due to the cost advantage of used pallets, it feels the future remains strong. Larry observed, “The need for new pallets is not that much unless it is a very large specialty item. Anything that is 48x40 or smaller, people just aren’t buying new pallets.”
Over the long-term the biggest challenge seems to be the dwindling core supply. Johnny said, “The biggest threat is a lack of new 48x40s being put into the market.” That is one reason for more automation to be able to obtain more boards from throw away pallets and build more combos.
Johnny forecasted, “I believe the recycling industry has a bright future because we can be cost competitive to new and rental pallets.”