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Smart Management and Tight Controls on Lumber Waste Are Keys for the Success of Hunter Woodworks
Keeping costs low and minimizing lumber waste have led Hunter Woodworks to become a dominant player in the highly competitive southern California pallet market.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 4/1/2012

Carson, California—To be successful in the competitive southern California pallet market for almost 70 years, you must have done something right. For Hunter Woodworks Inc. of Carson, Calif., a focus on maintaining quality, maximizing lumber yield and keeping costs low has allowed it to weather the various ups and downs of the market since the company began in 1943.

          Going back to its early days, Hunter Woodworks has found ways to reduce wood waste and maximize the yield coming from its milling operations.

          Bruce Benton, general manager for Hunter Woodworks, said, “I won’t tell you what our waste factor is but if I told you what it was out of 20 million feet of lumber you would fall out of your chair in disbelief. It’s incredibly low. We do not waste a lot of material. And that’s pretty amazing considering the fact that we do so many different sizes and the fact that we run all three major grades. Wood waste is one of the key factors we watch to maintain profitability.”

          Benton points back to the founding of the company when it had enough material left over from a major order that the Hunter Woodworks could build another 1,000 water heater boxes for Rheem Manufacturing. Instead of keeping the lumber for itself, George Hunter, the founder of Hunter Woodworks, told the customer about the extra lumber and offered to produce more boxes free of charge. Benton explained that this way of doing business is where “Hunter’s trademark of honesty and integrity came from.”


Hunter History – Maximizing Yield

          George Hunter started Hunter Woodworks in 1943 at the request of local industrial businessmen who frequented the pool hall that he ran. Hunter bought a cabinet making shop and began producing boxes to transport Rheem water heaters. The company grew and expanded into pallets. Bill Hunter joined his uncle in the business and eventually took it over. The company transitioned from a location in Southgate to the Carson area and then moved into the existing facility in 1980.

          Benton said, “This property was built from the ground up to run pallets. From the day we moved in during May of 1980, everything was all paid for: property, buildings, equipment; everything. That was Bill’s philosophy: if you can’t pay cash you don’t need it. “

          Hunter Woodwork’s current facility was designed to efficiently resize lumber and produce pallets. Lumber flows through the front of the plant moving from right to left. Material comes in via truck through the front gate or is transported on rail cars using the rail spur that runs down the right side of the property. Lumber is unloaded and stored in that area of the property and is moved to the milling lines in the center of the plant. Then 2x4s, 3x4s, 2x3s are sent to the nailing lines in the far left side of the property. Other material that needs to be resawn into 1x4s , 1x6s, etc. moves over to one of the two resaw lines. Finished pallets are then painted, stenciled or prepped for loading onto trailers for transit to customers.

          Hunter Woodworks does not operate a kiln because the majority of the lumber it buys is already certified heat-treated.

It does provide export certified pallets made from this material; its HT pallets are audited and certified by Timber Products Inspection.

          Hunter Woodwork’s sawing operation can process 100,000 board feet per hour, making it one of the largest facilities of its type in the region. Finding ways to maximize yield has been one of the keys to the operation since it began years ago. Benton explained, “We have always bought 2x8s and wider (2x8s, 2x10s and 2x12s) and ripped them into 2x4s and 2x6s. Then we cut the ripped lumber into desired lengths and resaw from that point. We have always done this because the wider the board, the better the material. Wider widths provide a higher percentage of better material for us to work with.”

          Benton said, “This is the beauty of 2x12. He is taking 2x12 and he’s making 3 pieces of 2x4. The 2x12 is the best product for us because we can make 2x4 and 2x6 out of it. If we need a lot of 2x4 then we do what we are doing right now; we rip the wides into 2x4s. If we need 2x6s, we rip 2x6 out of it.”

          Although it will sell off some scrap material that cannot be used, Hunter Woodworks looks to find ways to utilize what others may just consider wood waste. Some spare pieces Hunter Woodworks will nail together to make a block for a block pallet. Benton said, “Some customers don’t want a high-end, expensive HT block pallet where you have to use southern yellow pine that costs a lot of money. We can build our own blocks and provide a less expensive pallet to the customer.”

          The resaw line allows Hunter Woodworks to take 2x material and make 1x4s or 1x6s – whatever is required by the customer. Benton said, “What we are actually doing on this resaw right now is that we run a lot of pallets that require a 7/8 inch deck. So we are taking this material and resawing it off-center so we get a 7/8” piece and a 7/16” piece. This is something a lot of people can’t do.”

          Benton further explained, “A lot of people buy mill run rough material in lieu of producing their our 7/8” pieces. We don’t have to. I can take it in a regular 2x dimension product. This process makes for a lot better product, a lot cleaner product.”

          Material coming from the resaw line is graded into three different grades – expendable, commercial, and quality. Kevin Hollingsworth, the sales manager for Hunter Woodworks, said, “One of the biggest selling points for us over our competitors is that we really produce true grades. We have expendable, mid-grade and high-end grade options. Most of our competitors basically call it whatever they want to call it at any given moment in time. For these competitors it’s just basically a lot of straight cut economy.”

          Hollingsworth added, “The size of the property here gives us the ability to actually cull lumber and keep the lumber separated for specific jobs.”


Quality Machines that Run A Long, Long Time

          Nobody would accuse Hunter Woodworks of failing to get the most out of its capital investment in machinery and equipment. The oldest piece of equipment in operation is a planer dating back to the 1890s. The majority of its equipment has been running for at least 10-15 years if not longer. Getting the most out of its machinery and limiting investment to only what the company truly needs has allowed it to keep its debt levels low.

          Hunter Woodworks has twenty Industrial Woodworking Machine jump saws that have been in operation for at least 15 years.

          Hunter Woodworks operates primarily Industrial Woodworking Machine jump saws in its cut up operations. It also uses two SCM gang rip saws and a Weima gang-rip saw. Benton explained, “Heavier material is run through the Weima because the SCM saws won’t process 4x4 material and wider.”

          The nailing operation relies on 13 FMC nailing machines. Some of these machines go back to the late 1950s/early 1960s. Benton said, “To this day, these machines still work well for us simply because of the change-over efficiency over time and the diversity of what we run. The FMCs are great at running low grade material.”

          Hunter Woodworks’ website claims, “No other pallet operation on the West Coast can compete with the production capacity and versatility of our 13 FMC Nailing Machines.” FMC nailing machines are much more common on the West Coast because they were produced in California. These machines have a capacity of producing 6-8 thousand pallets on an 8-hour shift. Some models require only one operator; others need two operators. Benton said, “Anything that’s a four-way entry has to run on a two man machine because it needs a jig to run into the nailer. You can’t lay the stringers down on the rollers because they could fall between.

          The machine operators lay up two pallets at a time to run through the nailer. A half-finished pallet from the previous nailing step is in the first nailing position. The operators hand place the top decking on this half-finished pallet and position the stringers and bottom deck boards on the second nailing station. The jig moves through the nailer to complete nailing the first pallet and nail the bottom of the second one. The first completed pallet is ejected into the stacker and the jig is returned back through the nailer to begin the process again.

          Coming out of the back of the nailing lines, pallets go either to be painted or straight into stock or onto the truck. Benton said, “Probably about 90% of the material coming out of machine nailing and hand nailing goes straight to a truck to be loaded and shipped within a day of being produced.” Hunter Woodworks keeps an inventory of ready-made pallets on hand for some larger customers that require it.

          Hunter Woodworks uses incentives to ensure high production rates and quality products. Bruce said, “Pallet assemblers are paid on a piece work basis – so they make better than hourly pay rates. If they make a mistake and the units have to come back to be repaired, they have to go on an hourly rate to repair them. We have setup our system to encourage employees to make it right the first time because he is not going to make as much when he has to stop and make repairs.”

          Nailing production is divided into two departments - machine nailing and hand nailing. The hand nailing department is utilized for smaller jobs, or for constructing more complicated units. Nailing tables are setup with variable jigs to allow for rapid construction and straight nailing.

          Benton said, “Probably 80% of our production is machine nailed and the remainder is hand nailed.”

          Hunter Woodworks uses primarily Mid Continent Nail fasteners for its bulk nailing production. “I’ve used almost all of the pallet nail suppliers out there in the past. And Mid Continent is the best when it comes to quality and service,” said Benton.

          Benton added, “Mid Continent actually put a warehouse near us and stores enough product on hand to serve our needs and those of other companies in Southern California. I don’t have to keep a big inventory of nails on my yard. It’s great.”

          Another benefit is that Hunter Woodworks likes to buy American made products. Benton said, “The Mid Continent nails are made in America, and we like to support American manufacturing when possible.”

          Hunter Woodworks uses Yale forklifts for moving smaller loads and two large industrial Hyster lift trucks to load rail cars and heavier loads.

          Hunter Woodworks follows an adjusted production schedule to avoid the heat of afternoon as well as the higher electric rate during the peak hours of the day. It runs a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift for most of the year. During the summer months it operates a 2:15 a.m. to 11 a.m. shift.

          Currently, Hunter Woodworks employs 60 production workers, two office staff, 10 sales representatives and four managers.

          During the recession, Hunter Woodworks did not lay off any employees. Instead, it cut back hours and adjusted schedules to allow employees to find part-time jobs to supplement their income. Benton said, “We are pretty proud to say in this tough economy we did not lay off one employee.”


Hunter Woodwork’s Unique Culture Allows It to Survive Hard Economic Times

          All of the current senior management team pointed to Bill Hunter as the driving force behind the company and the person who has set the tone for the operation. Bill Hunter took over control of the company from his uncle in 1950. He built up the operation and has turned over the control of the regular operations to his grandson, Jeremy Benz, who is the CEO. The senior management team also includes Jan Benz, president as well as Jeremy’s mother. Bruce Benton, is the general manager; Kevin Hollingsworth is the sales manager; and Efren Raya is the production manager.  

          Benton said, “Quite honestly, this company wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the support of Bill and Ruthie Hunter, who own Hunter Woodworks. Bill’s been out of the mainstream part of the business for probably 15-20 years now and leaves it up to us to run. But his support, especially during these last three years, is unprecedented as far as I’m concerned.”

          Benton said, “During this bad economy, Bill has been very supportive and given us money to run if necessary. Obviously, we can hold on a little bit longer than some other pallet companies because we don’t service any debt.

But if we need money, Bill and Ruthie Hunter give us money to run and never said no to anything we asked...And I’m a non-family member. And it was just whatever I wanted to do, whatever we want to do now, Bill is 100% behind it.”

          Bill Hunter keeps in regular contact with the management team and buys the entire office staff lunch every day. Benton added, “Ruthie Hunter is there Mondays and Fridays with Bill, just to come in and visit and talk. When Jeremy’s mother is here on Mondays and Fridays, the whole family is here and it’s pure family atmosphere. Their support has just been tremendous. “

          Jeremy Benz joined Hunter Woodworks in 2001 with experience in the technology sector writing business plans for Internet startups. Benz said, “I really got an appreciation for a business like ours that makes something. The average employee has been here years. A lot of them have been here 25-30 years, which provides a stability you don’t find in the average corporate culture.”

          For example, the production manager, Efren Raya has been with Hunter Woodworks for 40 years. He started out as a hand stacker and has gone on to do all the production jobs in the plant. Benton said, “Efren knows all the equipment and is a genius when it comes to keeping production humming.”

          Its culture has helped Hunter Woodworks make it through recent economic hardships that have hit the industry. Benton said, “It’s been extremely tough, it’s been a tough 2 or 3 years. Last year was not so bad, we kind of got things turned around and got back to a point where it was pretty much break even. But the two years prior to that, we lost some money. I’m not going to lie about that. I think everybody did, but again with the support and the financial backing of the Hunters and the fact that everything is paid for, it’s allowed us to push forward and put some new programs in play including hiring four new sales people.”

          Today, Hunter Woodworks is on a steady growth curve. Benton said, “I think we’re going to be a good 20% ahead of last January’s sales figures for this January. So that’s all we care about at this point. Once we get that back, then we’ll worry about another 5%. Then we’ll worry about another 10%. Baby steps, we don’t have a problem with that.”

          Benton said, “One thing Bill has always preached to me, when I first took over, and I know he preaches it to him (Jeremy Benz), is that you don’t have to be greedy. You want to make the money, but you don’t want to make too much money. I’ve had months where I’ve made too much money, and I have had Bill tell me, ‘Bruce, you’re making too much money. You’re taking advantage of our customers. Slow down a little bit. Let’s share the wealth out there a little bit.’ And he’s always had that philosophy and his one big saying is that if you take care of the business, the business will take care of you.”

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