Nevada Trucker Company Backed into the Pallet Arena: Pallet Chief Nailing Equipment Helps Custom Design Pallets to Grow
Custom Design Pallets: Ken Wells had a trucking business in Las Vegas that morphed into a pallet company; Pallet Chief nailing equipment has helped the company grow and prosper.
By Thomas G. Dolan
Date Posted: 6/1/2008
LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Sometimes people end up running a business because they grew up in it. It’s what their father did, and maybe their grandfather, too.
Others take a more circuitous route. Ken Wells, president of Custom Design Pallets in Las Vegas, belongs in the latter category.
Ken began working as an installer of new telephone lines after graduating from high school. He moved into telephone line installation contracting and traveled the Yukon and Western states before settling down in Las Vegas in 1982.
He didn’t stay settled for long. He wanted to have another business, so he and his wife, Irene, started a trucking company. Some of his customers needed pallets, so he built pallets for them. As the pallet side of the business grew, Ken started buying hardwood pallets out of Arkansas.
“Then the competition started offering cheaper, alder pallets,” recalled Ken, 53, “so that forced me to look for alder and start building by hand. I started using one of my sons, and some of his friends helped me build them on a part-time basis. About 1999 I hired my first two employees full-time. Then, to make sure we had enough work, I had to go out and solicit the pallet business.”
Ken realized he would be better off having a machine to nail pallets instead of building them with manual labor. He began shopping around for pallet nailing machines.
Ken heard some good reports about Pallet Chief Manufacturing, located in Fayettville, Alabama in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The company is still owned and run by the original designer of the Pallet Chief nailing and stacking equipment, Barry Landers. Ken found that Barry’s pledge to give every customer the most machinery for his money was more than just hype.
Ken compared several manufacturers of pallet nailing machines and attended trade shows to see their equipment perform. “After looking at various other pallet building machines and seeing the Pallet Chief, I settled on Pallet Chief,” he said. “I saw their production quality was very high, and I was impressed by their extreme ease of maintenance as well as cost effectiveness.”
Ken bought a Pallet Chief II with a regular stacker. As business grew, he replaced the regular stacker with a deluxe stacker which increased productivity by 20%. He added a Pallet Chief III in 2004.
The trucking business was very competitive, and business declined. Ken made a strategic decision to focus more on pallets, and he phased out the trucking business in 1998.
The pallet business continued to grow. In 2006 Ken retired his Pallet Chief II, replacing it with a Pallet Chief IV machine with deluxe stacker.
Custom Design Pallets has 25-30 employees. It operates with a 2,500-square-foot shop on 1-½ acres; with so little rain, some of the operations are done outside, although the Pallet Chief machines are kept under roof. The company produces 800-1,000 pallets a day. Ken had sales of more than $2 million in 2007.
About 75% of the company’s pallets are assembled on the Pallet Chief equipment. About 10% are custom pallets assembled by hand, and about 15% are pallets that have been repaired and recycled.
Pallet Chief machines use pneumatic nailing tools and collated nails to assemble pallets. The Pallet Chief I and II models allow the operator to manually advance the nailing gantry to nail the pallet; the gantry is pushed back, the worker flips the pallet, inserts the remaining deck boards, and advances the nailing gantry again to complete the pallet, which is stacked automatically at the outfeed.
The Pallet Chief III and IV models are automated. The Pallet Chief III, like the I and II models, has only one nailing gantry, but it advances automatically. The Pallet Chief IV has two nailing gantries and could be described as a tandem nailing machine; after the bottom deck is nailed, the machine automatically advances the pallet and flips it over, and it moves to the second nailing station so the top deck boards can be put into place and nailed.
Each nailing gantry has three pneumatic nailing tools, one for each stringer. The machines are designed to use simple mechanics — no programmable logic controls or computerized controls.
The Pallet Chief I, II and III can be operated by one worker although two may be used. The Pallet Chief IV is generally operated by two men.
Ken has been pleased with the equipment. “They allow for good, high volume production,” he said. “The pallets are all consistently built with good quality each and every time.”
“I’m really happy with these two machines’ ease of use,” he added. “The service is excellent, and Pallet Chief is always willing to work with me. They are very open if I have new suggestions on how to improve the equipment.”
Custom Design Pallets is equipped with lumber remanufacturing equipment to process rough lumber into pallet components. One of the company’s principal suppliers is Samuel Kent Baker Inc. (SKB). Ken has an SKB single-head band resaw, a double-end trim saw and a single-head notching machine. Other SKB equipment includes a conveyor, seven hoppers and three custom hoppers to collect sawdust and trim ends, and several tables for repairing pallets.
Saw blades are supplied by Saw Service & Supply, which also sold Ken a trim saw. The company also has a Smart Products bandsaw dismantler for disassembling scrap pallets in order to recycle the used lumber. Stanley-Bostitch pneumatic nailing tools are used for repairing pallets and assembling some pallets by hand.
Ken buys lumber and other material from Marathon Forest Products, MFP and LowGradeLumber. He uses heat-treated material, and his company is certified by Timber Products Inspection to supply pallets for export applications.
Ken has explored ways to process residuals into other products but to no avail so far. He gives away scrap wood for firewood, and he has a few people who take his sawdust. “What we can’t give away, we take to the landfill,” he said.
Custom Design Pallets is the largest manufacturer of new pallets in the Las Vegas area, according to Ken. “We do cold call sales calls but most of our business comes from word-of-mouth,” he said.
“Our theory is quality control and service, service, service,” added Ken. “We do a lot of inventory stockpiling to help us provide that service. On a rush job we’ll take care of it the same day or no later than the next. We’ll pull people off of other jobs to make sure the work gets done.”
Custom Design Pallets does all its own deliveries. It has three Dodge 3500 pickup trucks, an International 4100 tractor, and two flatbed gooseneck trailers, a 20-foot and a 40-foot.
The company has computer software from Automated Machine Systems to draw pallet designs for customers and also uses QuickBooks accounting software.
Ken and Irene have two sons, Scott, 25, and Gene, 22. Scott works in the office, making sales. “We’re motorcycle enthusiasts,” said Ken. “My wife and I have five Harley-Davidsons.” They enjoy riding with each other and friends. Other interests include collecting miniature motorcycles and watching History Channel programs about the Civil War and World War II. Ken supports several nonprofit organizations in the area, including the Civil Air Patrol, a group that helps disabled law enforcement officers and their families, a camp for the blind, and the Boy Scouts.
Ken used to be a ‘workaholic,’ some times working seven days a week and pulling all-nighters to get the business going. Now, with equipment and a good staff in place, he works more normal hours. His role in the business is customer relations and exploring ways to generate new business and revenue.
“A couple of years ago, we couldn’t handle any more business,” Ken said. “We were running two shifts, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but with the economic downturn, we had to cut back. It’s almost like it was after 9-11, but we got through that, and we’ll get through this.”
A major soft drink company is opening a new facility in the area, and Custom Design Pallets will be supplying it with pallets. “That in itself points to a bright future,” said Ken.
Pallet Chief Offers Simple, Affordable Nailing Machines
Barry Landers, owner of Pallet Chief Manufacturing, is not shy discussing price when it comes to his company’s nailing equipment.
When asked to distinguish Pallet Chief with other pallet nailing equipment on the market, he said, “One of the main differences is price. Our machines, compared to other machinery of equal production capability, are about 50 percent cheaper.”
Pallet Chief can price its machinery so much less because of the simplicity of design, said Barry. The machines operate mechanically with no computerization or programmable logic controls. In addition to costing less than other equipment that uses computers or plc, Pallet Chief equipment is simple to operate and maintain, he noted.
Barry, 53, was a contractor for almost 20 years when he got into the pallet business as a sideline. “In the late 1980s,” he recalled, “wood prices got all out of kilter, so necessity is the mother of invention. I needed to increase pallet production…but I had to have something that entry level employees could operate.” That led to his founding Pallet Chief Manufacturing in 1990.
The Pallet Chief nailing machines use compressed air and run on only 110 volts of electricity; in fact, the Pallet Chief I model does not require electricity.
Another advantage of the nailers is that they can assemble pallets with recycled lumber, noted Barry. That is an important issue for pallet suppliers with recycling operations.
Joe Chesney, who owns Chesney Enterprises in Williamsburg, Penn., uses his two Pallet Chief II models to build pallets with both new and recycled lumber. “We use about 50 percent new and 50 percent recycled wood,” said Joe.
“We like this machine because you can use new wood one day and recycled the next without any changes to the machine,” said Joe. “Using recycled lumber, one operator can produce 300 to 400 quality pallets in an 8-hour shift. We like the fact that the operator can see the boards as he is pulling the gantry across, so he can make sure the boards stay in place and do not move.”
“We take good care of our machines and in four years have had no maintenance problems,” added Joe, who bought the two Pallet Chief nailers in 2003.
“I know of no other machine that will build uniform, quality pallets with recycled wood as well as the Pallet Chief II,” he said.
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