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N.C. Company Specializes in Custom Pallets, Containers, Wood Packaging;
Hildreth Wood Products Has Prospered by Serving Specialty Market

By Peter Hildebrandt
Date Posted: 2/2/2005

WADESBORO, North Carolina -- Despite a long and fruitful career as an engineer with Rockwell International, Blake Hildreth never forgot his first work experience.

            “I worked my way through college hauling five-foot long pulpwood logs for my father’s logging operations,” said Blake, owner of Hildreth Wood Products, a pallet and container manufacturing business. “I call this ‘character-building’ work.

“My father made me a good offer,” he continued. “He would pay my way through school and give me a car to drive on the weekends if I would help him all through school. I couldn’t pass up that offer and never forgot what he did for me -- nor the experience of getting to know him as a person. I gained an appreciation for what other people thought of him as well.”

Blake, 63, is the owner of Hildreth Wood Products. He and his wife, Peggy, both work in the business, which is just down the driveway from the white house in which Blake grew up. The Hildreths built a new brick house of their own design nearby.

Driving back to Hildreth Wood Products after lunch at a café with a long history of serving legions of goose hunters, Blake pointed out the houses of assorted relatives, many now in their 90s. Blake has come back home, and he makes you feel as if you have, too.

Blake earned an engineering degree from N.C. State University in 1962 and began his career at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Less than a year later, however, he was drafted into the Army. He was on active duty three years and then served in the Army Reserve for 28 years. When he got out of the Army in 1966, he began a 28-year career with Rockwell International in Raleigh.

While working for Rockwell, Blake partnered with his father and brother to launch Hildreth Wood Products, a pallet manufacturing business, in 1968. When his father died in 1985, Blake bought his brother’s interest in the company and hired a manager to run the business. He kept the books for the company and visited on a regular basis but was not involved in the day-to-day operations.

When the manager suffered a non-fatal heart attack in 1993, Blake already had retired from Rockwell International, and so he took on the role of managing the business. He commuted for about five years until he and Peggy built their new home near the company.

Hildreth Wood Products has continued to manufacture pallets, but even when he was an absent partner Blake quickly learned that custom and specialty wood packaging products could be profitable though more challenging.

In just a few short years he realized the company could not compete against companies that could sell pallets cheaper than what he paid for lumber. “We had to make a product not favored by highly automated set-up,” he recalled. “We also had to make sure that the materials I used were always available.”

“We will make somebody 50 pallets that have something special about them, such as two holes in the deck to mount something on, or a rail around the top, or a large shipping container,” explained Blake.

“Since 1968, we’ve only had two occasions when we made the same pallet for two different customers,” said Blake. “We do not make any standard items for inventory, nor do we make one item for one outfit everyday. Each day is quite different from the next for everyone in our company. I guess this is the main thing that makes us different from other pallet enterprises.”

            “Often I will ask my employees how their day went,” said Blake. “The reply is: ‘Great.  Today I worked on four different jobs.’ I think this is what makes working with our company interesting. There is always a lot of variety in the work.”

            Customers frequently come to Hildreth Wood Products with their own drawings for a certain type of custom pallet. “The drawings they come to us with many times are well done,” said Blake. “I then go through and make a take-off that I will put into terminology for our plant.  These are then computerized into our system. We have perhaps 500 active items that customers are still ordering.” Blake has designed most of the specialty shipping products his company has sold.

            In addition to custom pallets, Hildreth Wood Products manufactures wood containers, crates, skids and related specialty wood packaging.

            The company once built a custom box that was 120 feet long -- as long as two tractor-trailer trucks. It had to be disassembled and transported in three sections to reach its destination. The box was used to ship a sailboat mast to an Italian yacht maker.

            On another occasion the company built a skid to ship a steam turbine-powered generator to an off-shore nuclear power plant. The main beams were 24 inches wide, 20 inches high and 24 feet long. The skid had a bolted floor that was 10 inches thick. The skid and its contents were hauled by rail to the coast and shipped by freighter to a nuclear power plant in the Brazilian jungle. A bulldozer hauled the skid through mud to the final destination.

            “One year I kept an unofficial count of how many different countries our pallets had gone to,” said Blake. “At last count it was 28.”

            The growing computer industry in the early 1970s was one of the company’s first big customers. Computer manufacturers and their suppliers required a variety of specialty wood packaging.

            The company’s specialty wood packaging has been used to transport a long list of other unusual items, including machine tools, nuclear fuel boxes, steel, diesel engines, ultrasound machines, manufacturing equipment, MRI machines, telephone switchgear equipment, tires for the space shuttle, fighter jet landing gear struts, four-wheel drive trucks, truck axles, windshield glass, parts for military contractors, insulators for high power lines, and even tires for Air Force One, the presidential aircraft.

            Hildreth Wood Products also has the capability to hermetically seal packaging. For shipping machine tools and other products, the company can provide a vacuum package and rust-proofing technology to protect the contents from moisture in transit on ocean-going cargo vessels.

            Hildreth Wood Products also can provide on-site crating or packaging services although it represents only about 5% of the company’s business. Blake or another representative will visit a customer location to take measurements for a machine or entire assembly line. When the packaging is ready, the company will bring it to the customer site and finish the final assembly and crating process. This type of job usually is done fairly close to home, no more than about 75 miles, and it may take one or two days to complete.

Hildreth Wood Products also manufactures containers with wooden frames and corrugated walls.

“We have a commitment,” said Blake. “Once we take an order from a customer, we fill it.  We don’t ever go back to that customer and say the materials cost more than we thought it would. We fill the order.”

Hildreth Wood Products uses a considerable volume of panels in its operations and buys spruce-pine-fir, Southern yellow pine, and other types of plywood by the truck-load. Blake usually buys building grade panels, the strongest that can be bought, and only a limited amount of off-grade material. Plywood suppliers are located as far away as Florida and Texas.

             Hildreth Wood Products also buys oak cants from sawmills in South Carolina or North Carolina. When they are hard to come by, the company has bought from mills as far away as West Virginia and Missouri. The company also buys some low-grade lumber from a major lumber remanufacturer.

            In the company’s cut-up and lumber remanufacturing operations, it relies heavily on equipment supplied by Brewer Inc.-Golden Eagle. The shop has two Brewer horizontal bandsaw lines, a two-head system and a four-head line. The four-head bandsaw line is used to saw sized cant material into deck boards and stringers. Cants and lumber are cut to length on Delta or DeWalt radial arm saws. The company also has a Brewer double-head notching machine equipped with carbide tipped cutting tools to make notched stringers.

            “We do a good bit of re-sawing of Southern yellow pine and spruce-pine-fir,” said Blake, such as splitting 2x4 material into 2x2. The company also has a variety of radial arm saws, table saws, bandsaws, and three drill presses.

            For assembly work, the company relies on Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools and fasteners, including lag screws, drywall screws and bolts. For pallet orders of about 100 units, the company will use a Bronco Pallet Systems semi-automated nailing station.

            Pallet and container assembly is done in a separate building that also houses specialty materials for cushioning and dunnage. A third building is used to store raw material and a small volume of finished goods.

            Hildreth Wood Products has four forklifts; three are powered by propane and one that is used mainly in the yard runs on diesel fuel. The company has a tractor-trailer rig and five additional trailers.

            Hildreth Wood Products employs about 25 people. The company’s normal work schedule is eight and one-half hours Monday through Thursday and six hours on Friday. The workers like the arrangement, which allows them to get off earlier on Friday.

            If he needs to hire more labor, Blake first asks his employees for referrals. If he needs to search further, he advertises with the state Employment Security Office. He seeks reliable people with basic skills in residential framing and basic carpentry. “A good work ethic is the main criteria for getting hired by our company,” said Blake.

            Hildreth Wood Products has an excellent employee safety training program and the awards to prove it. “We try to have safety meetings at the first of every month and are very proud of our accomplishments in this area,” said Blake.

            Workers receive general safety training as well as specialty training in protecting their eyes and proper lifting techniques. They also receive training in fire safety, forklift safety, and proper handling of hazardous materials. Employees sign forms indicating that they have read and understand safety information.

            “Six years ago I started to apply for recognition from the Department of Labor for all the periods we’d gone through with no lost-time accidents by our employees,” said Blake. “We received it six years in a row, and then last year we got the North Carolina Forestry Association Safety Award, and we were chosen as the Manufacturer of the Year in North Carolina because of our safety program. That is a compliment to our employees.”

            One of the awards was a cash price of $500. Blake used the money to treat employees to a special lunch.

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