Texas Company Finds Profitable Niche in Custom Crates and Skids
Baker Products a Key Supplier of Band Resaws to Consolidated Wood Products
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2002
BULLARD, Texas -- A degree in agricultural finance from Texas A&M University put Jim Tarrant on one side of a desk as a loan officer. After five years of evaluating the needs of borrowers, though, Jim wanted to jump on the other side of the desk and open a business.
Today, he owns Consolidated Wood Products, Inc., which specializes in making crates and skids for manufacturers of appliances. The company’s annual sales are about $3.5 million. In addition to supplying shipping platforms for customers that make kitchen appliances, Consolidated Wood Products makes containers for air conditioner manufacturers, foundries and oil companies.
Most of the company’s crates and skids are custom made. "If you need a circle (cut) the size of the roof of a car, we can do it," said Jim. Consolidated Wood Products manufactures about 100 kind of crates. Some are small as 6 inches square while the largest are 28 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 6 feet high. Occasional sales of new pallets are brokered.
Consolidated Wood Products is based in Bullard, a small town about 110 miles southeast of Dallas. It has a 33,000 square-foot facility housing its cut-up and assembly operations and also a 2,500-square-foot repair shop. Jim is "fixing" to add a 12,000-square-foot addition to the main building. With 33 acres, he has plenty of room to expand.
Consolidated Wood Products has its roots in Consolidated Crate Co., a business Jim and his brother started in 1984 that focused on building wire-bound crates and hardwood pallets. Jim bought his brother’s share in the company in 1990 and incorporated Consolidated Wood Products.
Jim and his brother modified their business plan soon after launching the original company. They had lined up one potential customer to buy boxes and pallets. When they were ready to begin taking orders, they learned the purchasing agent whom they had been dealing with had been replaced -- and along with him their standing order for pallets and containers. It was Jim’s "first wake-up call" to the uncertainties and change inherent in the business world. He received a second wake-up call when he realized how difficult it was to obtain a consistent, reliable supply of hardwood material. As a solution, he began using Southern Yellow Pine.
The company struggled in its early years, and ingenuity and a combination of experience carried Jim through. He grew up on a cattle ranch, so he had a lot of experience maintaining and repairing equipment. He also had some previous experience in the pallet industry; his father bought a pallet business just as Jim graduated from college, and Jim worked there for a time.
Consolidated Wood Products buys random length Southern Yellow Pine No. 3 and No. 4 dimension lumber. "I buy wide longs when I can get them," said Jim. He buys 2x8 and wider in lengths ranging from 4 feet to 20 feet -- mostly 14 feet to 16 feet. The 20-footers give a much better yield but are often difficult to buy. The company remanufactures the material primarily into 2x4 and 1x4.
To the extent possible, Consolidated Wood Products relies on two automated cut-up lines for making crate and skid components. Each line requires three employees. Jim described the general flow of material along one of the reman lines. The lumber is fed to an unscrambler that singulates the boards and feeds them to a Brewer Inc. single-arbor gang saw that may cut the boards into 2x4 or 1x4. A kicker sends the material exiting the gang saw to a Newman Whitney KM-16 multiple trim saw, which cuts them to the correct length. If the material requires additional remanufacturing, it may be conveyed to a Baker Products single-head horizontal band resaw that is used for ripping, splitting, and other operations.
Consolidated Wood Products has a machine shop that enables it to maintain and repair any of the company’s equipment, including its fleet of trucks. The shop staff also fabricates metal jigs that are used for assembling crates.
The company’s machinery is a combination of new equipment bought from suppliers, used machines bought at auction and refurbished, and shop-built equipment. For example, the material handling equipment in the cut-up area is a combination of shop-built machines and used machinery; the company has some Mellott unscramblers that were bought at auctions and refurbished and also some shop-built unscramblers and conveyors.
Attending machinery auctions is sort of a hobby for Jim, who tries to anticipate the company’s equipment needs. Over the years he has found a few gems, like an MMT single-head notcher. MMT is no longer in business, but the notcher has proven to be the most durable machine the company has, according to Jim. It has been used to notch stringers up to 20 feet long. Consolidated Wood Products also has a shop-built double-head notcher.
Jim has relied heavily on Baker Products for horizontal band resaws. Consolidated Wood Products has five Baker single-head resaws and a Baker two-head line. In fact, Consolidated Wood Products was one of the first companies in Texas to begin using Baker equipment in 1989. "Ed Baker is a super guy," said Jim, referring to the Baker Products president.
The company’s cut-up operations also are equipped with five Whirlwind chop saws that run "day in and day out," said Jim. The shop has three XL gang saws, a Reed panel saw, a Clary truss saw, and a CNC router. Most of these machines are set up to run at stand-alone work stations. Employees move lumber among the stand-alone machines using a combination of carts and racks, mostly shop made, and Nissan forklifts. In the yard, JCB lifts are deployed.
Consolidated Wood Products has A-frame shop-built jigs to make it easier and faster to assemble some skids and containers. They reduce back strain and can be changed over quickly.
Nailing is done with Stanley-Bostitch power tools, and Jim has been "very pleased" with the service he gets from his distributor.
Because some crates and skids are so big, Consolidated Wood Products needs something extra to move them. The solution is an overhead steel I-beam equipped with moveable electric hoists. The system is shop built.
Scrap wood is moved via a shop-built chain conveyor to an electric powered Cresswood grinder for processing, and the grindings and sawdust are sold to a local nursery business.
Some customers use skids and containers for export shipments, and the Southern Yellow Pine material is heat-treated and certified to meet European Union requirements. Consolidated Wood Products is certified by Timber Products Inspection to supply heat-treated skids and containers.
Consolidated Wood Products buys about half of its lumber from mills within about a 400-mile radius and the other half through brokers. Jim buys Southern Yellow Pine from mills in east Texas, southwest Arkansas, and west and south Louisiana. "Ninety-eight percent of the time we do our own" pick-ups from mills, he said. One International and two Freightliner semis are used in combination with 10 trailers, which have drop decks to reduce freight costs.
The 35 employees at Consolidated Wood Products include "three guys that have worked with me 14 or 15 years," said Jim. Workers are generally cross-trained in multiple tasks, and Jim has a certain approach he takes to training. New employees often start out stacking lumber, move on to cutting operations and finally to assembling skids and containers.
"My employees are really good," said Jim, who devotes much of his time to purchasing and sales. His wife, Cindy, does the bookkeeping. The couple's three teen-age sons, Matt, Ben and Will, also work in the business.
Efficiency is important to Jim, who tries to get to one trade show a year and is an avid reader of trade publications. The over-arching goal of the company’s operations is to streamline production in order to eliminate wasted motion and handle wood once.
Jim provides crate design services for customers, often using their product prototypes or samples. He also collaborates with customers to help them achieve efficiencies. For example, he once designed a skid assembly that was simultaneously lighter and stronger than what the customer previously used; the customer saved over $100,000 in the first year of using Jim’s new skid design.
Jim is active in his community in several ways and also enjoys a mutual hobby with his sons. He serves as president of the Jacksonville Independent School District, teaches Sunday school, and is on the board of a bank. He has also coached youth baseball, football and track teams. Jim and his sons enjoy rebuilding old pick-up trucks; he and his youngest son are currently rebuilding a 1948 Ford pick-up, which they took all the way down to the frame.
Owning a business has been everything Jim envisioned. "I enjoy the challenge," he said. "I like being the guy that can make something work...turning out a good product."
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