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Tall Timber Products Weathers Storms, Adapts and Changes to Meet New Need: Kentucky Company Carves Out a Place as Efficient Manufacturer of Cut Stock
Tall Timber Products: Kentucky company carves out a niche as efficient manufacturer of pre-cut pallet stock; Tall Timber Products weathers storms, adapts and changes to meet new market need.

By Jodi Beckworth
Date Posted: 6/1/2007

FLEMINGSBURG, Kentucky—When a fire destroyed his pallet company, John Cox began again.

   “Good came from (the fire),” said John, owner of Tall Timber Products, and three years later the company has a different focus.

   Instead of manufacturing pallets, Tall Timber Products now manufactures cut stock that it sells to other pallet companies. John recognized the need to change.

   Tall Timber Products, with six employees, manufactures hardwood cut stock. The company buys predominantly oak, poplar, and maple cants from several local sawmills. John buys 3-1/2x6 cants in lengths ranging from 8 feet to 16 feet, and the cants are remanufactured into deck boards and stringers. The company’s cut stock is supplied to pallet manufacturers in Kentucky and Indiana.

   Tall Timber Products is located in Flemingsburg in northeast Kentucky, about 70 miles east of Frankfort. John bought the business from Vernon Yoder in 1995; it was then known as Shannon Pallet.

   “I’d spent 17 years in banking,” said John. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Morehead State University, working summers at pallet and sawmill businesses.

   He was happy in the banking industry but wanted to go into business for himself. He saw a great opportunity when Vernon, who had once been a banking customer of John’s, decided to sell Shannon Pallet.

   Shannon Pallet consisted of three buildings on 18 acres of land. One building contained an old, defunct sawmill. (It later collapsed in a winter storm). The pallet manufacturing operations were housed in the other two, one of which was an old barn. The company’s equipment was powered by a generator. The machines included a Viking Champion nailing system and a Wagner-type gang saw that Vernon had built. Shannon Pallet was not well established, however, and the customer base was weak.

   The Mennonite employees initially stayed with the company and John, the new owner. Within about 90 days, though, all the employees had quit except one, and 75% of the customer accounts were gone. In order to obtain insurance for the buildings, he had to upgrade the electrical systems.

   A thunderstorm sparked a fire at the plant in 1997 and devastated the company. The old barn burned down, and the company lost several key pieces of machinery, including three forklifts, a chamfer machine and a notcher.

   Some equipment was salvaged even though it had been located in the building where the fire occurred. The entire cut-up line, including the gang saw, was salvaged. All the equipment was sand-blasted, painted and refurbished with new bearings. The Viking nailing machine also escaped the fire.

   John had to make a decision: begin again from the ground up or sell? The value of the loss was estimated at $400,000, but John received only $300,000 from his insurance company.

   John had managed to begin rebuilding his customer accounts and felt he could regain the lost ground. He didn’t have enough business volume to justify keeping the Viking Champion. “And I couldn’t find any cut stock to buy, so I sold the nailer.”

   Raw material markets were very tight at the time, and finding an adequate supply of lumber was difficult. Competition for low-grade lumber was intense. Flemingsburg is about 80 miles southeast of Cincinnati, he noted, and many pallet companies in the Cincinnati area bought their raw material from mills
in Kentucky.

   John still had a few accounts and continued to supply pallets for a while with workers assembling them by hand with pneumatic nailing tools. Gradually, and as raw material markets began to change, he began to accept some orders for pallet lumber, too. Over the next few years, he began phasing the company out of pallet manufacturing and into manufacturing cut stock.

   By 1999, three years after the fire, Tall Timber Products had restructured completely. “We changed our entire focus from pallets to cut stock because we saw a need,” said John.

   With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, the company suffered another blow. Business fell off 75% in the month following the attacks, according to John. It took about two years for the business to recover to 80% of plant capacity.

   Although John has encountered many setbacks, he has never faltered. He continued to market the company, calling pallet companies to ask if they were buying cut stock. Advertising paid off, too. John has advertised his company’s cut stock to the pallet industry in Pallet Enterprise. In fact, every customer he currently has was obtained via advertising.

   Today Tall Timber Products has four buildings. The main plant is 13,000 square feet and houses the company’s cut-up operations. Another 2,500-square-foot building houses the inventory of cut stock. An outbuilding stores sawdust, and the company’s offices are contained in a mobile home building.

   Incoming cants are offloaded in the yard with a Kawasaki forklift. When they are ready to be processed, they are fed via forklift to a Quality Machine live infeed deck. Lonnie Eden, the plant manager, operates the infeed deck, activating a foot pedal to advance each cant to a descrambler.

   The descrambler singulates the cants and feeds them to a live roller deck that carries them into a Quality Machine single cut-off saw. Air stops position the cant at a pre-set length, such as 48 inches, and Lonnie uses a joy stick to make the cut.

   The cut-to-length cant material feeds inline to the gang saw. A Wagner gang saw  is equipped with a planer head on the front to size the wood to precisely
3-1/2 inches before it goes through the gang saw blades to be sawn into stringers. Other material goes through the gang saw to be sawn into deck boards, which are typically 5/8-inch.

   The cut-up line is well automated and efficient. “No one touches the wood until it comes out the end of the gang saw,” noted John. The entire cut-up line, including gang saws, is only 30 feet long.

   Stringers exit one gang saw onto an accumulation table, and two men pull them and stack them by hand. If the stringers are to be notched, the accumulation table is moved and replaced with a set of dead rollers. As the stringers exit the gang saw onto the dead rollers, a worker feeds them into a Hazlethorn double-head notching machine with Econotool indexable cutters. The other worker offloads the notched stringers as they exit the machine and stacks them.

   The company operates from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For material handling in
the mill, the company uses a Nissan forklift. Saw blades are serviced and supplied by Country Saw and Knife. Tall Timber uses a local trucking contractor, G and L Transport, to haul orders to customers, which are located in Kentucky and Indiana.

   Tall Timber Products “provides a quality product in a timely manner,” said John. Eliminating the pallet assembly operations enabled the company to focus entirely on the cant resaw operations.

   The company can operate productively and efficiently with its minimal equipment and only a small group of employees. “Efficiency is what we do best,” said John. “We average about 14,000 board feet a day with only three men.”

   John’s wife, Shawna, is a 50% owner and is the company’s bookkeeper; she worked previously for the local board of education in administration for 22 years. John and Shawna have been married for 29 years and have two children. They live in the Morehead area and are active in a local church.

   All employees receive safety training and equipment, including ear plugs and protective glasses, and they receive additional safety training quarterly. Employees earn hourly wages and also are eligible for daily bonuses that are pegged to production levels.

   John would like to grow his business, but the main obstacle is a shortage of raw material. He has considered adding a scragg mill to saw low-grade logs into cants, but the labor market is tight, too. He also has looked into investing in equipment to heat-treat pallet stock for pallet suppliers that manufacture pallets for export applications, but he has found many pallet companies already have systems to treat finished pallets.

   For John, increasing advertising and marketing to increase sales is his best way to grow revenues right now. Tall Timber Products is running at about 80% capacity and can run up to 90% without the need for expansion, John said.

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