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Father, Son Growing Superior Pallets in Western New York: Rotochopper Machine Proves Valuable to Grind Residuals, Color Mulch
Superior Pallets: A father-and-son team grows pallet business in western New York; Rotochopper machine proves valuable for grinding scrap wood material for boiler fuel, colored mulch.

By Diane M. Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/1/2008

BUFFALO, New York — Second chances often get labeled the stuff of dreams, but hard work and conviction can make them happen. Someone just has to roll up his sleeves and get going.

   David Goettel did that when he purchased the assets of a troubled pallet company in western New York and built his own, successful business.

   Dave is the president and CEO of Superior Pallets Inc., which dates to 2000. His son, Jeff, vice president, joined the company full-time in 2001.

   The name Superior Pallets was selected to put the focus on the company’s philosophy of melding superior products to superior service, said Jeff. Superior processed 800,000 pallets in 2007. Most were repaired or dismantled to reclaim used lumber for repair stock or to make remanufactured or combination pallets. Scrap pallets were processed by grinding.

   Superior Pallets repairs pallets, makes remanufactured pallets with recycled lumber and also makes combination or ‘combo’ pallets with some recycled lumber and some new lumber. For new lumber the company buys pre-cut stock. Although pallet repair and recycling is the company’s dominant focus, about 10% of the company’s pallet production is new pallets. The company’s operations employ about 40 workers.

   Superior Pallets serves various manufacturing businesses in western New York and northwest Pennsylvania. The company is located in Buffalo, a city of about 300,000 people. The business occupies 14 acres near Interstate 90. Drivers for the company log an average of 325 miles and five stops each day.

   The company’s operations, including dismantling pallets for recycled lumber and retrieving surplus pallets for customers, generate a considerable volume of scrap wood material and pallets.  In the spring and summer, the company grinds the material to produce mulch; starting in mid-September, the grindings are sold to markets for boiler fuel.

   “In 2007, we ground 7,000 tons of wood waste,” said Jeff. The machine that got the job done is a Rotochopper MC-266 mobile wood grinder. Superior Pallets purchased the Rotochopper in the fall of 2006 after a fire destroyed its existing grinder. Rotochopper is headquartered in St. Martin, Minn.

   “We were really interested in the Rotochopper because it could color and grind,” said Jeffrey. Rotochopper machines grind wood material and color the resulting mulch in one pass through the machine.

   About half of the mulch made by Superior Pallets is colored — red, black or brown. All mulch is sold bulk wholesale to local governments, landscapers and other markets. The company also produces a wood mulch that meets the American Society for Testing and Materials standard for playground surface material.

   Superior Pallets buys Mulch Magic colorants from Colorbiotics. The dyes in Colorbiotics products are derived from plants, so the resulting colored mulch is environmentally friendly. Colorbiotics is an independent business unit of Becker Underwood.

   The MC-266 Rotochopper is an “excellent” machine, said Jeff. The company normally uses it to produce about 30 tons of mulch per day. It has the capacity to do much more, but for now, Superior matches grinding operations with the volume of scrap wood it produces. “We’re meeting our needs,” said Jeff. Expanding may be in the future, but for now Jeff wants to use the machine only to handle in-house wood waste.

   Because the Rotochopper replaced another grinder that was quite old, Jeff expected good performance because the machine was new. He got it and more, starting with dependability.

   “The reliability is great,” said Jeff. “The run time has just been amazing.” He has been especially pleased with the Rotochopper’s ability to produce colored mulch in one pass through the machine. Changing screens is quick and easy, too, he said. “One guy can change the screens in about 20 minutes,” said Jeff.

   All that efficiency, and the Rotochopper stands up to heavy-duty grinding and steady hours. “We’ve had very few problems with the machine,” said Jeff. “Rotochopper has a service representative in Pennsylvania who stops in periodically” just to check on the machine, said Jeff. That service means a great deal because it demonstrates commitment to the customer, he added.

   Commitment to customer is a business approach with which Jeff and his father can identify. “We’re always looking to improve our business,” said Jeffrey, including improving processes and efficiency. Commitment to customers includes listening to them and interacting with them, which is enhanced with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software and a Quality Assurance Guide that Superior Pallets shares with its clients on request.

   Superior Pallets has a 45,000-square-foot building that is a combination plant and warehouse. The end of May marked the beginning of some significant changes in the company’s pallet repair operations. Superior Pallets installed a Pallet Repair Systems (PRS) ‘nail-on-the-fly’ automated pallet repair line. In addition, the company added an Innovative Data Systems Pallet Track system that uses bar codes and other technology to capture and manage information about its pallet recycling operations. When Jeff talked to Pallet Enterprise in late May for this article, employees were still being trained on the new systems.

   The PRS automated repair line replaced a semi-automated system of some significance. The old repair line was part of the business purchased by David, and it was the first pallet repair line designed by Clarence Leising, according to Jeff. Clarence, a sales rep for Eagle Metal Products, has a long history in pallet recycling management and is the author of Pallet Head, a hands-on management guide to pallet recycling.

   The new PRS automated pallet repair line will be used exclusively to process GMA pallets. Other pallets are repaired at individual work stations.

   If Superior Pallets gets a big order for new pallets of a particular size, it often contracts with other pallet companies that are equipped with automated nailing machines.

   Superior Pallets can provide export pallets, too. Heat-treating is subcontracted to Integrated Thermal Solutions in Hamburg, N.Y. “They provide us with proper documentation,” said Jeff.

   Approximately 97% of incoming pallet cores come from customers with regular contracts. Superior relies on a fleet of four tractors and 90 trailers to retrieve surplus pallets. Like other pallet recyclers, the company leaves empty trailers at customer locations, returning later to retrieve them when they are filled with pallets and to drop off another empty.

   “A few customers will drop off here,” said Jeff, but most rely on Superior’s trailers and service.

   Pallets are sorted before they are staged to the repair line. By sorting in advance, the repair line only gets the GMA pallets, and it only gets pallets that can be repaired or are potentially ‘ready-to-go.’ “Everything that comes in, we sort out to useable or unusable,” said Jeffrey.

   In its lumber recycling operations, three Smart Products two-man bandsaw dismantlers are used to disassemble pallets. Used pallet parts are cut to length on PRS trim saws.

   Safety is a top priority at Superior Pallets. New hires complete a safety training program – dubbed ‘Safely Superior’ — that was developed in-house. Emphasis on safety is reinforced with a daily practice; each employee reviews a safety topic before the start of a shift. Topics are the choice of the employee and may include machine guarding, proper lifting techniques or others. Also, supervisors conduct monthly safety meetings on topics mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). On-site training and retraining of employees is augmented by a subscription the company has to KellerOnline, which provides easy access to trends and ideas in safety and OSHA updates.

   The company has supplied a wide range of pallet sizes over the years. “The largest we’ve built is 180 inches long by 30 inches wide and the smallest is 19 inches by 24 inches,” said Jeff. Besides recycling pallets and making new, remanufactured and ‘combo’ pallets, Superior Pallets supplies plastic pallets, totes and dunnage.

   A local company, VRI Sharpening Service in West Seneca, N.Y., services circular saw blades for Superior Pallets. “We buy our bandsaw blades from Sadowski’s,” said Jeff.

   Jeff and his father are natives of Buffalo. Dave worked for Ryder Transportation for 22 years. In 1998 he went to work for the pallet business he eventually bought. He served as operations manager of the company. When the parent business began to sell off holdings, Dave decided to buy the pallet division and go into business for himself.

   Jeffrey had experience working part-time for the former company. And he worked part-time for Superior Pallets, too, before joining the company full-time in 2001. He worked at the companies part-time while attending the University of Buffalo, where he earned a pre-law degree.

   Jeff took a lot of business courses as part of his studies, and he had second thoughts about continuing for a law degree, especially when his father suggested joining the business. “After I graduated, he asked whether I would be interested,” Jeff recalled.

   During his stint at the predecessor business, Jeffrey had come to enjoy the mill environment. He worked on a cut-up line that ran a Cornell gang saw and also assembled new pallets.

   “I like working with my father,” said Jeff. “We get along very well. He knows the operations side, how to repair equipment.” Jeff and his father more or less split their duties, with Jeff handling financial and administrative tasks and Dave overseeing plant and logistical operations.

   The Rotochopper MC-266 is powered by diesel engine. Scrap pallets are loaded into the grinder via forklift. The machine can grind whole scrap pallets, slabs, scrap used lumber, and other wood material. The MC-266 has an infeed opening 66 inches wide and 18 inches high. The machine is road legal when pulled by a tractor.

   The MC-266 Rotochopper can grind enough scrap pallets — and color the mulch — to fill a 100-cubic-yard truck in about 40 minutes, according to the manufacturer. It is even faster grinding and coloring bark, producing 100 cubic yards in about 15 minutes.

   “Rotochopper has been great for us,” said Jeff. “We’ve recommended it to three or four other companies. They’ve come to see it run. The folks at Rotochopper are absolutely wonderful. They’re phenomenal.”

   Jeff and his father also share some leisure interests. “Both my father and I like traveling to Walt Disney World and golfing,” he said.

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