Green Meadow Lumber Takes
New England company constantly takes pulse of lumber and pallet markets, adjusts to changes and grows.
By Tim Cox & Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 3/1/2000
WESTFIELD, Mass. — What has a quarry got to do with a custom pallet business? When Green Meadow Lumber Inc. owner Steve Oleksak thinks about quarrying, he recalls how diversity and flexibility can sustain — and grow — a business across four generations.
Steve’s great-grandfather started a logging and sawmill business after his first job in a marble quarry came to an end. When the quarries played out, he was forced to change and adapt if he was going to succeed as a businessman.
Steve, 49, learned the same lessons working alongside his father, Jim Oleksak. When he went to work in his father’s company 24 years ago, it was a logging and sawmill business with two full-time and one part-time employees.
Today, Green Meadow Lumber is still in the sawmill business, but the company no longer does its own logging. Pallet manufacturing has been part of the company’s business since Steve’s grandfather owned it, and pallet sales now make up about 25% of the company’s revenues. Green Meadow’s sawmill operations produce dimension lumber, about half the output, and timbers for the log cabin industry. The pallet plant has 10 employees while the two sawmills employ another 32 workers.
Westfield, situated among the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts, is a town of 40,000. It began as a 17th century trading post and garnered a reputation as a center for making whips. Westfield is just a few miles from the junction of the Massachusetts Turnpike, which runs east-west across the Bay State, and Interstate 91, which extends south to Connecticut and runs north along the Vermont-New Hampshire border, so there is convenient access to all of New England and beyond. Although much of the company’s pallet business is in western Massachusetts, Green Meadow has customers in Boston, 100 miles to the east, and as far south as Rhode Island, which is 150 miles.
Green Meadow Lumber encompasses 15 acres, although Steve owns 35 contiguous acres in all, some of which could be used for future expansion. There are three main buildings, one for each sawmill and one dedicated to pallet assembly. The 35-acre tract also contains his home and the green meadow for which the company was renamed about 15 years ago. The company’s name previously had changed over the years with new ownership. Steve wanted a generic name to transcend the ownership. His mother helped him pick it.
Steve owns about 200 acres of timberland but the company is no longer running its own logging crews. It hires subcontractors for timber harvesting. It buys standing timber in Massachusetts and Connecticut and contracts with four logging crews for harvesting. The company also buys logs from independent contractors. Logs are hauled to the company yard by the logging operations or on Green Meadow trucks. "We have the truck system worked out," explained Steve, "so we can move logs in and pallets out."
Why did he get out of logging? "Pretty much my body decided to get out for me," Steve answered. After logging about 10 years, he threw his back out one day when he merely picked up his chain saw. He literally had to crawl to his truck.
Steve started growing the pallet side of the business a few years after joining his father in the company. The lumber market took a downturn, and he went knocking on doors, trying to pick up more pallet accounts. As demand for pallet lumber grew, the company needed to expand its mill. "It’s gone back and forth," said Steve. "We kept on growing. I always try to concentrate" on the market that is expanding. "When you eliminate a bottleneck, you create another one. We had the lumber, but not the market, so we went to pallets."
The company manufactures about 3,500 to 4,000 pallets each week for customers in such industries as paper coating, paper covering, steel and fertilizer. "The smallest pallet we’ve made is a one-foot by two-foot for fertilizer," said Steve. "The largest is an 18-foot by 10-foot."
The company’s focus is on custom pallets, and it makes nearly 100 different types of pallets, Steve estimated. It uses a truck with a 24-foot body for deliveries and seeks orders of truck-load quantities. "It’s more economical for the customer and for us," he explained.
"Pallets are generally made with low-grade hardwoods," said Steve. "But we use whatever we’ve got. We use softwoods — several kinds of pine and hemlock — for runners."
Green Meadow gets cants from both its Cornell scragg mill and its HMC sawmill. In the pallet shop, the cants are cut to size by hand on one of two Baker Products chop saws. The saws are fed by a Rojo unscrambler, one of several the company has throughout its mills. Some cant material is cut to size to long lengths, resawn and then processed on a Cornell multi-trim saw into deck boards and stringers.
Sized cant material goes to one of two Wood-Mizer horizontal bandsaws, a two-head that is equipped with a merry-go-round and a six-head, for resawing into deck boards and stringers.
Steve bought his first Wood-Mizer bandsaw about 15 years ago, and he is enthusiastic about their performance. "The most fantastic thing about the Wood-Mizer is the thinner blade, forty-four thousandths of an inch," he said. Reliability from the Wood-Mizers is favorable compared to other thin-kerf bandsaws, according to Steve.
(Wood-Mizer suspended production of horizontal bandsaws for about six years as it concentrated on meeting the increased demand for its portable band sawmills, said Charlie Ryker of the Wood-Mizer Products sales department. However, the company has begun manufacturing the resaws again and offers models a single head to a six-headed version.)
The company invested in a Viking Champion nailing machine in 1989, and Steve has been pleased by the machine’s performance. Steve likes to get orders of 400 to 500 pallets so that the Viking can run without frequent changeovers. Production has been increasing recently to the point where Steve has been thinking of adding a second nailing machine, but he decided first to try running a second shift for a while. The pallet shop also has three benches for assembling pallets with Stanley-Bostitch nailing tools.
The company uses lift tables extensively throughout its facilities to prevent the kind of career-changing injury that Steve suffered. It bought more than a dozen at an auction although some required repairs. They are stationed at cut-up lines and nailing benches to eliminate some of the heavy lifting. "People...don’t need to work hard if they don’t have to," said Steve.
For material handling, in the pallet plant the company has three Mitsubishi forklifts and one Clark forklift. Volvo loaders are used in the sawmills.
Green Meadow does not maintain a significant inventory of finished pallets. Some customers leave trailers at Green Meadow, and they are loaded as pallets are made, which eliminates putting pallets into inventory and handling them twice.
The company does not recycle pallets but occasionally supplies some customers and other pallet businesses with cut stock for pallet repairs.
The mix between pallet production, dimension lumber and timbers hinges on orders, the availability of raw material and its cost, and price, but price is paramount. "Everything is driven for price," said Steve, the sole owner of Green Meadow now for about 14 years. "When we can get a good price for pallets, we make more pallets. If we do not have a grade market for lumber, we cut it for pallets." Negotiating price starts with knowing the customer, he said. "I learn what a customer wants, what we must do before we deliver."
Green Meadow added the scragg mill supplied by Cornell Industrial five years ago in order to alleviate a bottleneck at the sawmill. As lumber markets improved, more and more lower grade material became profitable for grade lumber, making less available for pallet production. "We had to start sawing smaller logs and tops that used to go for firewood," Steve said. The company’s previous circular sawmill, a Chase, was not as productive for small wood. The idea behind the Cornell scragg, which can process 30,000 board feet per shift of small wood though it only runs two days a week, was to create a market for small wood, Steve said. The Chase could only handle about 8,000 board feet per shift. Logs 12 feet and shorter and 12 inches and smaller are selected for the scragg. In addition, sending the small logs to the scragg has made the sawmill more productive. The company ran the Chase for 15 years before upgrading it with an HMC circular head-rig last summer.
The Cornell scragg has boosted production. "We got a 30 to 40 percent increase in production off the sawmill by just removing those small logs and saving them for the scragg ," said Steve. "It handles four or five logs per minute."
Timbers for the log cabin industry are made from 12-inch to 15-inch logs and are sawn on both the scragg mill and the head-rig. All dimension lumber is sold green to such markets as scaffolding and bridge work. Pine dimension stock is sold to the cuts market because white pine that grows in the region has a lot of black knots, according to Steve. Remanufacturers buy the material in 6-foot lengths and longer, cut it to shorter sizes and remove the knots and other defects, and use the resulting stock for fingerjointed products such as paint-grade moulding.
Cut-offs and trim ends are processed in Eager Beaver and Morbark chippers. Steve sells all his bark and chips to his brother, James Oleksak Jr., who processes that material with a tub grinder and sells bark, mulch, including colored mulch, and ground wood fiber for playground surfaces.
Except for blade sharpening, all maintenance at Green Meadow is done in-house. "The only blades we sharpen here are inserts," said Steve. "Bandsaw and carbide blades are sent out." Maintenance is performed on the weekends. "I inherited a mechanic in my son-in-law, Matt Rokosz," said Steve. Matt is responsible for all machine maintenance. An experienced diesel mechanic, he also maintains the company’s trucks — two Kenworth tractor-trailers, a Ford flat bed, and a Ford tri-axle log truck.
Bruce Bosworth is the pallet shop foreman and the head sawyer is Kevin Fuller. They, like many employees, have been with the company a long time. "Eighty percent of my employees have been with me many years," said Steve. "There is a core group, with very good longevity. And we all have very good relations." One full-time secretary, Carolyn Pierce, and Steve work in the office. Steve still saws on occasion and stacks a few boards from time to time just to make sure the crew knows that was how he started and that he remembers how to do it
Steve attributed the good employee retention to the way he tries to treats his workers. "I try to be aware of what’s going on," said Steve. "I try to be there. I try to treat them like I want to be treated."
The company will continue to evolve, Steve anticipates, as it turns over to another generation of Oleksaks. One of his sons, Kevin, works afternoons and summers at Green Meadow while studying finance and business management at Western New England College. Another adult son, Jeffrey, is in the Air Force, and a third son, Brian, is in seventh grade.
While in high school, Steve worked part-time, cutting firewood. After high school, he joined the Navy and did not think he would return to the family business. He spent four years in the Navy as a boiler engineer and then decided to work with his father. He is glad he changed his mind. "I like the fact that I built something people told me couldn’t be done," said Steve, a member of the Northeastern Loggers Association and the Western Massachusetts Loggers Association. "I’m now providing real jobs (to the community) and providing real help with environmental issues" by informing the public about the forest products industry. "I have a sense of personal pride."
Steve and his company have shared their prosperity with their community. "We support the local Boys Club and Girls Club with an annual golf tournament," said Steve. "We raised $35,000 last year. And we support the Red Cross and the YMCA. We are so dependent on the community, we must give back to the community."
Supporting his community also allows Green Meadow to be a positive voice and image for the forest products industry to the public. "We want to keep the company out front so they’re aware" of what the business is about, Steve explained. "That way, when they hear about logging or the wood business, they realize it’s not a bad thing."
"Bad press is cheap," he added. "Good press is expensive. But we just try to be out there, letting people know what we’re doing." Steve occasionally speaks before community groups, such as local chamber of commerce gatherings, and makes Green Meadow available for tours by high school students, Boy Scouts, and others. "Any group that wants to tour the mill, they’re always welcome."
In the environmentally conscious Bay State, Steve interacts frequently with state agencies that regulate logging, waste disposal, and more. Massachusetts, in fact, has many layers of regulations that affect Green Meadow. To help the company comply and keep up with the regulations, Steve hired a licensed forester several years ago. When the company buys standing timber, the forester handles all the interplay between Green Meadow, the landowner, and state agencies.
Steve’s father, now retired, left his full-time commitment to the business to care for his wife when she fell ill. He still enjoys regular visits to Green Meadow to keep abreast of changes. "He is amazed at how much is moving in and out," said Steve. As much as his father likes to come by for a visit, he values the free time he has in retirement, particularly to golf.
When Steve takes time away from the business, he likes to spend more time with Susan, his wife of 28 years. He dabbles in on-line trading in the stock market. He also likes to take hunting and fishing trips. He has hunted in Alaska and throughout Canada. This year he is planning a trip to the Yukon.
Steve’s duties include sales, but to him selling is synonymous with a commitment to making high-quality products. "If we make a good product," he explained, "the product sells itself."
As important as product quality is, Steve knows that diversity and the willingness to change and adapt to changing markets and conditions also are important. If market shifts warrant further change, he is willing to lead his business in whatever direction is required for success. "We are always ready to move in different directions," he said.
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