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Growing Ala. Pallet Manufacturer Turning His Focus to Bottom Line
Baker Bandsaws Heart of Cut-Up Lines at C&L Wood Products

By Carolee Anita Boyles
Date Posted: 6/1/2004

HARTSELLE, Ala. -- Take Navy pilot Henry Bowman out of the service and put him to work in a bank, and he gets…bored. Give him a challenge — like buying and running a small business — and he’ll flourish, and the company along with him.

            C&L Wood Products in Hartselle, Ala. is a pallet manufacturing business that was started by Lewis Wilson in 1975. For 20 years, he had a well-run, profitable company that provided him with a reasonable livelihood. In the mid-1990s, Lewis decided he wanted to retire and move west to start a cattle ranch.

            Along came Henry. After he graduated from college, Henry spent seven years as a Navy helicopter pilot, a job he loved. When he got out of the Navy in 1994, he went to work for a corporate bank. “I learned a lot, but I couldn’t stand it,” Henry said. “I started wondering what else I could do.”

            Lewis’s accountant, a former Marine named James Tucker, knew Henry through the bank and liked him, and knew Henry was dissatisfied working at the bank. So when Lewis started talking about selling the company, James decided to put Lewis and Henry together and see what might happen.

            “I liked Lewis, and I just fell in love with the company,” Henry recalled. “There’s just something about the smell of wood…the machines. It was kind of a ‘guy’s world.’ And when you really like something, you start to believe you can do it.” That belief became strong enough that Henry made a decision to buy the company from Lewis in January 1996.

            Henry describes C&L Wood Products as a new pallet manufacturer that also produces a small amount of industrial lumber – dunnage and other low-grade material. The dunnage, made of both hardwood and pine, typically is used by manufacturers shipping heavy materials.

            C&L has a single location outside Hartselle, which is a medium-sized Alabama town south of Decatur and not far from the Wheeler Lake impoundment of the fabled Tennessee River.  The company has 50 acres with about 30,000 square feet under roof and employs 54 workers.

            “When I got there we were on 10 acres and had 18 employees,” Henry recalled. “We were about 30,000 square feet then; that hasn’t changed very much. I’ve just bought property around us as we’ve grown.” The company is not using the additional acreage at this point; most of the added 40 acres is undeveloped. “We’ll probably use 20 acres total and never touch the other 30,” Henry said.

            Another indication of the company’s growth under Henry’s leadership: when he took over, C&L Wood Products was using about 4 million board feet of wood a year. “Now we’re probably using 10 million board feet or a little more,” he said.

            C&L Wood Products serves a number of industries and builds many different sizes and styles of pallets. “We make them for pretty much anyone we can sell to,” Henry said. “I’d say our area is more heavy manufacturing. We try to stay away from grocery and food-service type pallets. That area seems to be well covered by other people. We try to do odd stuff and pallets that are a little more difficult.”

            The company has developed a reputation for building almost anything in the way of a pallet or skid.  C&L Wood Products makes more than 400 different kinds of pallets for clients in industries that include automotive, components manufacturing, steel fabricators, shippers and distributors. Although the company makes a few standard size pallets, it is more likely to make unusual custom sizes. The largest pallet the company makes is 144 inches by 84 inches, and the smallest is 18 inches by 20 inches.

            C&L Wood Products works almost entirely with new wood. For the most part the company uses red oak and white oak along with some hickory and yellow poplar.

            “We do dabble some in Southern yellow pine,” Henry said. “But we’re up near the Tennessee border, so we’re kind of in hardwood country. Once you get down below Birmingham, you get down in pine country, but not here.”

            The company buys hardwood cants from sawmills in middle Tennessee in dimensions such as 4x6, 4x8 and 6x6. There are two cut-up lines for remanufacturing the cants into pallet stock. Each line begins with a Brewer Inc.-Golden Eagle cut-off saw; one is a single head machine and the other is a double-head.

            All resawing is accomplished by Baker Products multi-head horizontal bandsaw systems. The resaws are configured the same way on each line. The sized cant material goes first to a Baker two-head resaw. The remaining cant is turned over onto it side and then goes through a Baker six-head resaw line. The lines can be set up to cut stringers and deck boards. The new stock is cleaned at the end of each line by a Baker de-duster and then stacked automatically by a Pendu stacker.

            “We run two lines on the first shift and one line on the second shift, five days a week,” Henry said.

            “I’m a big fan of Baker resaws,” said Henry. “They’re very simply engineered, and they’re very easy to maintain. In our environment, where we’re paying a lot for lumber, the Baker resaws have helped us get every board foot that we possibly can out of the material we have. The bottom line is that even though they’re a little more labor intensive than a gang saw, they yield more from the wood, and wood is more expensive than labor.”

            Baker Products also has provided strong service, noted Henry – and promptly. “When you need work, they have a Freightliner service truck that they’ll send right to your plant,” he said.  “They have two guys who can come in and basically rebuild your line.”

            Some time ago the Baker Products service team did a hydraulic retro-fit on the six-head and two-head resaw lines that were over 10 years old. The service was performed on a Saturday, so it never disrupted C&L’s operations. The refurbished bandsaw lines have run fine ever since, Henry said, with no need for additional major maintenance.

            The company also buys some 4/4 and 5/4 lumber. It is cut to the correct lengths on a Newman KM-16 multi-trim saw and then split with a Baker single-head bandsaw.

            For notching stringers for four-way entry pallets, the company uses a Brewer Inc.-Golden Eagle double-head notching machine.

            Two Viking Turbo 505 automated pallet assembly systems nail about 95% of the company’s pallets. For very short runs and odd sizes, workers assemble pallets at tables with power nailing tools.

            C&L uses Lennox bandsaw blades and Misenheiner Saw, a local supplier, for circular saw blades. The company relies on Duo-Fast power nailing tools. Mid-Continent Nail Corp. supplies Magnum fasteners for collated nails for power nailing tools and for bulk nails for the Viking nailing machines. Cutting tools for notching machines are supplied by Profile Technology.

            C&L Wood Products processes its residuals. A Rotochopper machine grinds scrap wood into mulch that is sold by the trailer-load (96-yard walking floor trailers) to markets in Alabama and Tennessee.

            Much of the company’s equipment is fairly new. Henry invested in 1999 in a Viking Turbo 505, replacing an earlier model, and added the second one this year. He added Baker resaws in 1999 and then again in 2003. In 2002 he bought the Brewer Inc.-Double Eagle notcher and single cut-off saw, and the Rotochopper was acquired in 1991.

            Henry’s wife, Blythe, helps out in the business from time to time. The couple has four young daughters.

            With all the demands of the business, Henry does not take a lot of time for recreation other than with his family. He enjoys taking his daughters to the mountains and spends a lot of time with them and their horses. Since they live in the country, he has plenty to do, taking care of the house and small acreage the family lives on.

            “I don’t play golf,” he said. “I don’t even hunt. I’ll go pheasant hunting in Iowa about once a year and duck hunting in Arkansas once a year, and that’s about it. I don’t even have time to go deer hunting with the guys around here.”

             “I’m embarrassed to say that I’m one of those workaholics,” said Henry. “I really enjoy my work.”

            In Henry’s hands, C&L Wood Products has continued the tradition of growth that began with Lewis.

            “It grew the whole time he (Lewis) had it,” Henry said. “And it’s been growing the same way ever since I’ve had it.” At this point, however, Henry feels that C&L Wood Products is at a sustainable size, and he doesn’t see the company getting significantly larger.

“I just don’t see us doubling our pallet volume in the next 10 years because I don’t see manufacturing in the U.S. growing exponentially,” he said. “We’ve been managing the top line well for a number of years. So now I see us working on the bottom line. My biggest challenge over the next few years will be to maintain conservative growth in an ever-competitive environment and with a potentially shrinking American manufacturing base.”

One of the most important components of the company’s success — and one of his biggest challenges — in the eight years since he purchased it, Henry said, has been employees. The workers at the plant were good people, but they were not people he had hired.

“When you take over an organization, if you didn’t hire the managers, a lot of them won’t listen to you,” he observed. “Especially when you’re 28 years old. I fought that for a couple of years, and by then I had enough experience that I could hire my own people.”

Once he had installed some of his own managers and had gotten to know some of the other key employees that he really liked, Henry had created a team that turned out to be an excellent group of workers. The group has helped the company succeed further.

“My plant manager, James Giles, is a super innovator,” Henry said. “He’s a good leader who sets a good example for the guys working there. He’s been a big help to me and has propped me up when I need propping up.”

James, a welder by trade, set an example for the other men by discouraging trash-talking and profanity. “It’s really been a good thing, and the men really appreciate it,” Henry said.  “Now when someone starts cussing a lot, the other men look at him and go, ‘Ease up.’”  The atmosphere in the shop is one of camaraderie and common purpose.

The other component to the company’s success over the past eight years has been the strength of the company that Lewis sold to Henry.

“The company kind of ran itself for a couple of years while I got my feet on the ground,” Henry said.  “If he hadn’t built a successful company to begin with, I couldn’t have done what I have.”

 








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