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Pallet Express on the Fast Track to Recycling Success
North Carolina pallet recycling company is on the fast track of success; lumber recovery operation centers on Clary bandsaw dismantling machines.

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 8/1/2000

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The fate of a used pallet is never in doubt long at Pallet Express Inc. A sorter decides quickly whether to repair it, take it apart, or grind it. And off it goes to a repair table, a bandsaw dismantling machine, or a grinder.

The pace at Pallet Express is as efficient as it is fast. It has to be. In 1999 the company processed 2 million used pallets and sold 1.5 million recycled pallets. The 75% ‘return’ on the incoming used pallets came from the mix of repaired pallets and remanufactured pallets that Pallet Express produced.

At Pallet Express, remanufactured pallets are made entirely from deck boards and stringers that are reclaimed from disassembled pallets. Used components also are used for repairs, although the company buys a small volume of cut stock for pallet repairs and for an occasional hybrid or combination pallet.

Owners Michael Briggs and Lynn Bell (a third owner is a ‘silent’ partner) and sales manager Marc Scudder, who spoke with Pallet Enterprise, share a vision for Pallet Express that emphasizes ‘three Rs’ of the business: reduce, reuse or recycle. It is an approach that many of the company’s big customers — retailers and distributors — share because it is a selling point with their equity owners as well as their customers.

As for the day-to-day activity that makes the vision a reality, Michael manages the logistics on site. Lynn does payroll, bookkeeping, and monitors cash flow. Marc markets the company and sells.

The silent partner launched the business with Lynn and their son, Gerald Bell Jr., in 1991. Marc joined the company in 1993 after having worked in sales for a food business and in sales and operations in the transportation industry. Michael, who had developed a part-time pallet business in his spare time, bought into the company in 1994. They have worked hard to foster growth, and the success of Pallet Express shows in the numbers. In 1993 Pallet Express had six employees and sales of $250,000. By 1999 the company had 112 employees and sales of just under $7 million.

In 1996 Pallet Express launched a satellite operation in Mt. Olive when the pickle company known by the same name as the community contracted for pallet repairs. "The company used standard #1 reconditioned pallets," said Marc. "We also repaired some cucumber crates at one time." The pickle company later converted to Chep rental pallets, but the decision to service a customer nearly 150 miles to the southeast in the coastal plain of North Carolina was a good one for Pallet Express, which used its base in Mt. Olive to develop other accounts in the region.

Greensboro, a city of 200,000, is nestled in the foothills of the north-central portion of the Tar Heel State and is only about 30 miles south of the Virginia state line. Moving throughout a 100-mile radius around Greensboro gives Pallet Express access to customers in Virginia, and South Carolina in addition to its home state. In North Carolina, textile mills and agriculture contribute heavily to the state’s economy, and Pallet Express serves customers in both industries.

In his travels back and forth between Greensboro and Mt. Olive, Marc had the opportunity to scout for more potential customers, something he enjoys doing. He is always on the alert for businesses that use pallets and might benefit from the services of Pallet Express.

Service is the starting point for negotiating with customers about repaired and remanufactured, according to Marc. And service often means an approach tailored for a particular customer. "We have different arrangements with different customers," he said. For example, Pallet Express sorts pallets for one customer on-site and simply hauls away damaged pallets. To ensure that customers get the quality that Pallet Express promises, the company has an employee dedicated to developing and implementing quality control measures.

To keep the flow of pallets moving, Pallet Express owns 120 trailers, eight flatbeds and the rest vans. The company owns six tractors and two ‘straight’ trucks and also rents four more tractors and 2 additional straight trucks. "We have 10 tractors and three straight trucks on the road every day," said Michael. Empty trailers are typically left at customer locations so they can be filled with pallets and retrieved by Pallet Express.

Ninety percent of the company’s incoming pallets are made of hardwood. For making renailed pallets, Pallet Express disassembles pallets and recovers deck boards between 1/2-inch and 3/4-inch thick and stringers between 1 1/8 inches and 1 3/8 inches. "Anything thicker or taller gets ground up," said Marc. "We take apart 20,000 pieces of pallet wood a day."

The company buys a small amount of pre-cut lumber — E grade hardwood and No. 4 pine. The cut stock is used for hybrid or combination pallets, pallets built with new and reclaimed components.

Incoming pallets are taken to a staging area that is covered with a shed roof. Ten to 12 workers sort through them.

At Pallet Express, "nothing goes to a landfill," said Marc. The company’s commitment to recycling extends to the pieces of plastic, shrink wrap and cardboard that often are stuffed into used pallets. Pallet Express workers remove these materials, segregate them, and the company sells them to other recyclers. The company also uses magnets to remove and recover nails from pallet grinding operations and sells the nails to a metals recycling company.

The Greensboro facility runs two shifts, five days each week, with about 100 employees; all pallet dismantling is done on the first shift. The Mt. Olive location employs about 12 workers.

The Greensboro plant has two separate areas for dismantling pallets and recovering lumber. They are identical in how they are organized and function. Each of the two lumber recovery areas of the Greensboro plant is equipped with a pair of bandsaw dismantlers, an Easy Saw (made by Hangzhou Easy Metals and Tools Co.) and a Smart Products chop saw. For dismantling machines, Pallet Express has two Clary Sidewinder machines, a Clary Hustler, and an Industrial Resources Rapid Cut II. Michael described the way each one is set up. "We have two bandsaws aligned" at the beginning of each line, he explained. "The wood falls on a conveyor and four sorters decide which way it will go." Good pieces are pulled out and routed either to the Easy Saw or the Smart Products chop saw; the rest is headed for the grinding machines.

The company also has a Newman Machine Co. notcher. "We do some notching of pine for one customer who uses pine pallets," said Michael.

All nailing is done by hand with Duo-Fast nailing tools. The first shift at the Greensboro plant has 18 repair stations and six renailing stations.

The Mt. Olive plant provides pallet repair services, and the staff there also recovers used pallet parts and assembles renailed pallets. The shop there is similarly equipped: a Clary Hustler bandsaw dismantler is used for reclaiming pallet parts, which are trimmed or cut to size on an Easy Saw or a Smart Products chop saw.

Pallet Express also provides painting services for customers. "We do a lot of painting of pallets," explained Marc. "Some of our customers display clothes on (them like) racks, and they wanted them painted, typically black, sometimes blue.

"A two-man crew can paint about 1,000 pallets a day," he continued. "When we are painting, we pull sorters out of the sort shed as needed." In addition to painting whole pallets, Pallet Express will paint a certain part or component of a pallet in order to color-code them for customers.

Given the volume of pallets the company processes, Pallet Express generates plenty of scrap wood. The company has two machines to handle the grinding, an eight-year-old Vecoplan Vortex 1600 and a two-year-old Cresswood HF-60. "They are both low-speed, high-torque machines," explained Michael, well suited for the heavy flow of hardwood. Together they grind about 30 to 40 tons of wood per day.

Vecoplan is a German company; the exclusive importer for the Vortex is Nordfab of Thomasville, N.C.

The Cresswood HF-60 is part of the Cresswood "Destroyer" series of grinders. Its 60-inch hopper can be fed with whole pallets as well as boards, cut-offs and other pieces of wood. The Cresswood machine can grind 2,000 to 14,000 pounds of wood per hour. The company has been pleased with the addition of the Cresswood grinder, which Michael described as "a more aggressive machine."

Pallet Express has two principal markets for ground wood fiber but is planning for an investment to develop a third. "There is a constant market for boiler fuel," said Marc, so much of the grinding output goes for that market. Depending on market conditions, the company also produces mulch. "We just sell mulch as the need arises, and for now that is sporadic."

A big change is in the works, however. The company is making plans to add production of colored mulch. "We are very close to coloring (mulch)," said Marc. "By next spring, we’ll be selling colored mulch."

Pallet Express owns a pair of live-bottom trucks for delivering mulch; the trucks can help spread the mulch when it is delivered instead of simply dumping it in one place.

Pallet Express owns its Greensboro site, and it has improved the eight-acre property by putting in six acres of asphalt and concrete pavement and a couple of buildings with combined space of about 10,000 square feet. In Mt. Olive the company works out of rented facilities.

Retail chains form the core of the customer base of Pallet Express. The company serves multiple locations of leading home improvement retail chains. A major grocery manufacturer also is a Pallet Express customer.

Brokering accounts for about 10% of sales; Pallet Express brokers some new pallets for PalEx and a few other new pallet producers; the pallets are supplied to a leading ‘big box’ retail chain.

Like other pallet companies, with so many pallets being moved around, forklifts are other key pieces of equipment. "We rely on them so much they should be mentioned," Marc said. The company uses Yale forklifts equipped with Cascade lifts. "They are single-double load handlers," said Michael. "And they are very fast when loading," added Marc.

One thing that sells customers on pallet recycling and using recycled products is a Pallet Express commitment to keep up with a company’s production flow; Pallet Express pledges to deliver pallets to a customer within 24 hours.

The company has another important selling point. "Helping the environment" is an important aspect of the products and services supplied by Pallet Express, said Lynn. She is particularly proud of the conservation accomplishments of Pallet Express. Customers want to conserve natural resources, too, she noted.

"Keeping wood out of landfills" is a major thrust of the state of North Carolina, explained Marc. The state is likely to ban wood waste from landfills within the next few years in order to encourage more wood recycling efforts, he said. Pallets that can be repaired and used again help to reduce waste right from the start, he noted.

Lynn is a native of Greensboro while Michael was born in Illinois. Marc, although he was born in Quebec, considers himself a Greensboro native because he moved there as an infant.

When Michael has some spare time, he likes to go deep sea fishing near Morehead City. He likes to eat what he catches but added, "I might go trophy fishing when the blue fins are there." Marc plays ice hockey regularly and coaches a youth ice hockey team; he also plays golf.

For Marc, the early days at Pallet Express were a bit like being on the Western frontier in the 19th century; things were a bit "wild" with a rich mix of opportunities, challenges and uncertainties. But he has enjoyed working with Michael and Lynn and forging the best trail to the present.

Now that Pallet Express Inc. has carved out a place in the market, the company plans to continue to find new ways to provide quality services and products to its customers, and to continue to grow.


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