For over 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine in America.
Fox Valley Wood Products Strives to Be World Class
Wisconsin company that started from humble beginning now in third generation, strives to be world class business.
By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 6/1/2016
Family Influences Business:
Wisconsin company that started from humble beginning now in third generation, strives to be world class business.
KAUKAUNA, Wisconsin – Fox Valley Wood Products seems to embody just about every factor that can contribute to a company’s success. Those ingredients include a strong ethic, family leadership and a willingness to innovate.
Fox Valley is located in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, about 20 miles southwest of Green Bay and near the northern edge of Lake Winnebago.
Fox Valley manufactures pallets, skids, and wooden crates and shipping containers. The company also sells a small volume of lumber.
The company ships about 15,000-16,000 new pallets per week plus skids, wood crates and containers. Pallets account for about 80% of revenues, according to Jeff Van Zeeland, sales and customer service manager. Jeff is one of several family members who own and work in the business.
The company has two buildings on eight acres. Its operations employ 38 people.
The Van Zeelands added a new 16,000-square-foot building two years ago to set up their own lumber remanufacturing operations. Prior to 2015, the company purchased lumber and contracted with another business to remanufacture the raw material into pallet components. The new plant is located directly across the road from the company’s primary building, a 21,000-square-foot facility that houses pallet and container assembly operations and more.
The decision to set up its own lumber remanufacturing plant was primarily because the company it did business with for so many years had become somewhat unreliable. “We outgrew what he could do,” explained Jeff. The business that Fox Valley contracted with was located about an hour’s drive north, which was another issue.
Family Business from the Start
The business had humble beginnings. Jeff’s paternal grandfather, Norbert, was a dairy farmer. Norbert operated several other small businesses. One of them was raising pheasants for sale to sporting clubs and state conservation departments as well as restaurants. He and his six sons built their own crates for shipping pheasants.
Eventually, a local manufacturing company asked the Van Zeelands to supply crates to ship its products throughout the country. The brothers began building crates for their first customer in a pole shed behind the dairy farm in 1963. They soon began building pallets for another customer.
Norbert died several years later at age 55, his six sons were in their teens and early 20s. A fire destroyed the pole shed a short time later. Nevertheless, three of his six sons — Jeff’s father, Don, and Don’s two brothers, Dale and Tom — decided to keep the business going, and they eventually grew it into a multi-million dollar company. Don and Dale, have worked in the family business ever since, and still do; Tom retired in 1996.
Jeff became the third generation when he entered the family business in 1996, and a cousin, Travis, a son of Dale, soon followed; they had worked in the business as teenagers. Both earned bachelor degrees and worked briefly for other businesses.
They worked on the floor at Fox Valley just like other production employees for two years — so their fathers could gauge if they would be good successors for the business, and so the cousins could decide if they really wanted to be in it — before they began to take on any management duties. Dale’s other son, Tyler, joined the company in the same way about seven years later after also graduating from college.
Today, Travis oversees pallet production, and Tyler oversees production of specialty products. Don’s role now is as a consultant who helps with hauling expedited products to customers. Dale continues to work full-time for the company and is the chief lumber buyer. “Don and Dale’s knowledge, experience and work ethic set the tone and direction of Fox Valley Wood Products,” said Jeff.
A family business “can be challenging at times,” acknowledged Jeff, adding, “we are thankful for each other and what each of us brings to the table.”
The business has grown steadily since the third generation joined, according to Jeff. In that period, less than 20 years, the business has experienced a fivefold increase in sales. That’s an average annual increase of 27% over 18 years.
“It’s kind of been word of mouth in a lot of cases,” said Jeff, who maintained the owners had no particular strategy or goal to grow the business as successfully as they have. “It truly is our reputation and word of mouth.”
Bringing the cousins on board was advantageous, observed Jeff, because it enabled the company to have more managers and allowed it to take jobs in the past that it had to turn down.
“Our marketing strategy is to offer a complex array of products,” said Jeff. Although the company supplies standard pallets, “We cater to industries that require custom or specialty pallets,” he explained.
Fox Valley keeps an inventory of about 15 truck-loads of pallets for some customers.We work with several paper and film converters who are notorious for schedule changes. Our warehousing provides our customers the elasticity to have fluctuating schedules for dozens of different pallet footprints across multiple different production lines. “We are offering our warehousing free of charge, which is a considerable break,” laughed Jeff. The company stocks 40-50 pallet sizes.
Keeping pallets in inventory enables Fox Valley to fill orders quickly, but the company also prides itself on taking orders for a custom product and delivering it the same day — receiving a quote request, designing the pallet or crate and providing a quote, recording the order, and building it and delivering it. In some cases the company will accept a verbal purchase order because it can complete the entire process faster than the customer can furnish a written purchase order.
“In this business, it is all about speed, efficiency, productivity and the ability to offer world class customer service,” said Jeff. “We believe it is this type example that sets us apart from the competition.”
The day he was interviewed for this article, Jeff took an order at 3:30 p.m., and the customer wanted it delivered by 8:30 a.m. the following day. Fox Valley’s plant shuts down at 3:30, but the job would be assigned to a crew that arrives early the next day. “We’ll make sure that we get it done,” said Jeff.
Customers represent such industries as paper and packaging, foundries, agriculture, machine shops, oil and gas, food processing, and the military. “It’s a pretty good spectrum,” said Jeff of the company’s customer accounts. Fox Valley serves customers primarily in northeast Wisconsin; about 90% are located within 100 miles.
About a dozen mills in Wisconsin and Michigan supply the company with material.
The company buys full loads of kiln-dried SPF lumber and plywood for crates. It also buys dense hardwood or aspen No. 3 green 4/4 and 6/6 in 4-inch and 6-inch widths and lengths of 8 or 10 feet. In its remanufacturing plant, bundles of material are staged on a package deck, then singulated by a Mellot unscrambler and conveyed to a Newman KM-16 multi-trim saw. The cut-to-length pieces are routed to an accumulation table where a worker feeds them into a McDonough 54-inch vertical band resaw to be split. Two other workers behind the resaw stack the material.
The cut-up operations are staffed with five workers, but the company is making investments in equipment to make the work easier, and the equipment is expected to reduce the staffing in the area to four workers. It has purchased a M2L board stacker from Pallet Machinery Group that was due to arrive at the end of May and also a conveyor, expected to arrive later this summer, to feed material from the KM-16 multi-trim directly to the resaw.
The company also buys a small volume of cants that are primarily split by the McDonough to be used for dunnage.
Finished material is bundled, loaded into a van, and moved across the road to the pallet assembly shop. Fox Valley has three automated pallet assembly systems from Viking Engineering: two Champion 305 machines and a Turbo 505. The most recent addition, a Champion 305, was purchased last fall. “Viking has been an excellent company to work with,” said Jeff. “They are a best-in-class organization.”
About 12 workers also assemble skids and crates by hand with Hammerstrike pneumatic nailing tools supplied by BlackHawk Industrial.
The company remanufactures lumber to provide about 70% of the pallet components it requires, and it purchases the rest as cut stock from the same mills in Michigan and Wisconsin.
About 15-20% of the company’s pallet production consists of standard GMA pallets. However, other sizes vary widely, from 24x24 to 60x60 and 96x48. The company even makes some skids 18 feet long by 4 feet wide. “We really cover the full gamut,” said Jeff.
Although a company may order a truck-load of one type of pallet, it is more common for a load going to a customer to have perhaps 5-10 different size pallets.
Sawdust is sold to farmers for animal bedding. Trim ends and other scrap is sold to a business that grinds it into landscape mulch.
The company does 80% of its outbound hauling with its own two semi-tractors and fleet of 14 trailers, and a trucking contractor handles remaining deliveries.
Viking bulk nails are used in the company’s Viking automated pallet assembly machines, and collated fasteners are supplied by BlackHawk Industrial. Fox Valley relies on Menominee Saw & Supply for saw blades and servicing, and Profile Technology supplies cutting tools for an old notching machine. (Most notched stringers are purchased as cut stock.)
Fox Valley, a member of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association and also the Northeastern Manufacturers Alliance, uses the Pallet Design System for designing pallets and containers for customers.
It has two heat-treating systems supplied by Kiln-Direct so it can kiln-dry pallets to prevent mold or supply heat-treated pallets and shipping containers for export. About 15% of its pallet production is heat-treated. Auditing of the heat-treatment process is handled by Timber Products Inspection.
The company’s facilities are clean and operations are well-organized, according to Jeff. “Truck drivers who frequent our facility compare it to others and often comment on how efficient and clean our operation is in comparison. We rarely let trucks sit longer than a few minutes waiting to get unloaded. We believe if we treat others the way we would like to be treated, it will come back to us as a blessing in one way or another.”
One thing that sets apart Fox Valley from other pallet manufacturers is compensation for employees, according to Jeff. The company pays “well above” the industry standard, he said, at least in part because it is seeking more than “a body” to fill a spot in production operations. The company seeks employees who can think for themselves, have high character, will be engaged in the business, and are interested in and committed to “getting the job done.” For workers who complete the initial couple of years of training and acclimation to the industry and the company, they may earn close to $50,000 annually.
“I think a huge part of our success is our employees,” said Jeff. “They understand the value of being productive.”