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Former Exec Finds Second Career A Charm Working with Wood
Former health care industry executive began building pallets at night as a family project to give his children something to do; now the family business prospers.

By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 4/1/1999

GRANTVILLE, Pa. ó John P. Backenstoes is a lucky man, and he knows it. Many people who have headed warily into a second career never find the satisfaction that John has found from working with his hands and running a pallet manufacturing business.

The pallet business was never part of his career plans. Instead, he worked for more than 20 years in the health insurance industry. In his early 50s, though, he began a second career when he launched a pallet manufacturing company ó John P. Backenstoes & Sons ó that also has provided jobs for other hard-working members of his family. "A new career at my age wasnít easy, but we did it," said John.

"It was a family affair," he added. "The familyís everything. They pulled it off. In a family business, itís down and dirty. Win, lose, or rained out, youíve got to have persistence. You donít give up. You keep going. And thatís what we all did."

His father had ties to the wood business. He bought a Frick sawmill in 1943 and did some specialty cutting for neighbors while keeping his day job as a jet engine mechanic at a nearby military installation. The sawmill later was idle for a number of years until Johnís sons, Steven and Jeffrey, committed to the pallet business. Jeffrey worked in the family pallet business before becoming a doctor; now he practices medicine in nearby Lebanon. His daughter, Tamara, also helped, hammering nails into the first pallets they built by hand in an old red barn.

The barn was small, only 24 feet by 36 feet, but the company was blessed with a good location. Backenstoes & Sons is situated in the productive farming region of south-central Pennsylvania, in the Dauphin County unincorporated village of Grantville. The area is accessible to the mid-Atlantic region and close to vital transportation arteries. Grantville is 20 miles east of Harrisburg, the state capital, and seven miles north of the famous chocolate-making town, Hershey. Interstates 81 and 76 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike) are close by, and Interstate 83 runs from Harrisburg to Baltimore.

Besides its reputation as a productive farming region, the area also boasts excellent deer hunting. The deer thrive on a diet of Pennsylvania Dutch crops, particularly alfalfa and corn. The region has experienced considerable growth and development in the past two decades. "There are so many new houses, golf courses and places to shop, you wouldnít recognize the place," said John.

"Iíll tell you about our location. Itís highly industrialized and highly populated. Mechanicsburg, just down the road, is the site of the U.S. Navyís supply depot. If youíre in the Navy and you order a replacement part, you get it from Mechanicsburg. The depot is here because of the network of highways."

John started the company in 1984 and at first worked at it part-time. "It was something for the kids to do at night while they were still in high school," he said. "It was like a family project." John entered it full time in 1988. Although still relatively small, the business is growing. With sales continuing to increase each year, it has seven employees ó four full-time and three part-time, including Johnís wife, Frances, who keeps the books. Besides John and Steven, the other full-time employees are Tamaraís husband, David Cassel, and Robert Riegel. The part-timers are Merlin Rhoad and Fred Cassel. (Dave and Fred are brothers.) They still use part of the building that housed the old Frick sawmill, but in 1995 they put up a 60-foot by 120-foot building, and last year they added a 50-foot by 100-foot building.

John still lives by a favorite expression of his father: a half a loaf is better than none. "We donít over-charge," he said. The company seems to fluctuate between having too much work and being all caught up. "It seems to be either feast or famine," said John.

When they first started the business, John used the old Frick to break down logs and produce cants but later decided to buy cants. (The Frick may be dismantled to make room for more equipment; John would like to see it eventually placed in a museum.) The company does not buy any cut stock; in fact, the company produces a small volume of cut stock that it sells to pallet recyclers for repair parts. It buys hardwood cants from suppliers mainly within a 50-mile radius, although it has bought some before from as far away as Virginia. Weaber Lumber Company, located in the Lebanon area, supplies about 90 percent of the cants bought by Backenstoes & Sons. "Itís probably the biggest sawmill and hardwood lumber supplier on the East Coast," John said. "They can get us what we need." The company buys 3Ĺx6 or 8 or 3Ĺ by random width; lengths range from 6 to 16 feet. John is not particular about species. "We like anything that grows leaves," he quipped. "We use anything but pine or hemlock."

"We can use some pine from time to time," John added, "but for most customers itís just too splitty for the size of material we cut. And most people want expendables because they just want to go one way. So our product simply has to do the required job for the one-way trip."

Cants are sized on an in-line Pendu 5000 gang saw cut-up system; it cuts deck boards and stringer material. The company also uses a Baker Products horizontal band saw for sawing some pallet lumber. Backenstoes & Sons does not manufacture any four-way pallets, so it has no equipment for notching or chamfering.

When Johnís business reached the point two years ago where it made sense to automate, he turned to Alabama-based Pallet Chief Manufacturing. He invested in a Pallet Chief III and deluxe stacker. Earlier, Backenstoes & Sons already had added a Bronco nailing station and stacker, but demand was out-pacing production. John knew about Pallet Chief and asked them to send him one of their promotional videos. "I looked at the video and I told my son, ĎI think thatís what we need.í It was very inexpensive and it did the job we wanted to do."

The nailing machine, which uses Bostich nailing tools and a deluxe stacker, is fully automated. When operating at full throttle, the Pallet Chief can turn out 50 to 60 pallets per hour, John estimated. "Working with my hands is satisfying, but itís most satisfying when I have the right equipment, like the Pallet Chief," he said.

The company uses the Pallet Chief mainly for assembling wing pallets for one customer, a cement company. The customer requires three footprints, 48x48, 40x48, and 42x48, although most are 40x48; all are made with four runners. "The Pallet Chief is great," said John. "One man can run it and produce a 40x48 with four stringers and 11 boards in 45 seconds." The company manufactures 1-3 truckloads per week for the cement company.

"How do I like it?" John replied when asked about the nailing machine. "Let me count the ways: $1, $2, $3...I donít get paid to say it, but Pallet Chief and the Pallet Chief company give us great service. Itís just the way they do business. Theyíve been wonderful."

The Bronco nailing station is used to assemble such footprints as 38x38 and 44x44. In addition, the company produces specialty pallets by hand, using jigs and Bostich, Senco and Duo-Fast nailing tools. The specialty pallets, which are the companyís bread and butter, range from 25-inch square to 5 feet by 16 feet. "We make a product to order, and produce about three trailer loads a week, roughly 1,500 a week," John said. One of the companyís customers is a manufacturer of sheet metal, which is produced to order specifications; pallets supplied for loads of sheet metal must be custom-made to accommodate the specifications of the sheet metal dimensions.

Finished pallets are shipped either on the companyís own tractor-trailer or rigs of local trucking companies.

When talking about his company and the reasons it has prospered in the competitive central Pennsylvania market, John emphasized the importance of manufacturing quality pallets and meeting the schedules of his customers. "We donít make anything without jigs," he said. "Everything has to be absolutely square. We donít eyeball anything."

Although pallets are his second career, John already has a successful one behind him. He held a couple of different jobs before going to work in the health insurance industry. A stint as a code enforcement officer left him unsatisfied. "I didnít like minding other peopleís business," he said. He went on to a lengthy career with Blue Cross, commuting to work in Harrisburg. It was his sons who became fascinated with the old Frick sawmill in on their grandfatherís property and wanted to get into the wood business. "I worked for Blue Cross for 22 years and then decided to leave so I could work in the pallet business with my sons," said John. At the time he left Blue Cross, John was the companyís corporate planning coordinator.

Backenstoes does not recycle pallets. As for wood waste, sawdust is sold for bedding to a horse racing track and cattle farmers. Scraps are used to fuel wood-burning furnaces in the winter and are put through a chipper and ground for mulch in the warm months.

John wed Frances when he was 18, and theyíve been married 41 years. They live in the same house they moved into 34 years ago at the foot of the Blue Mountains, and the Appalachian Trail is behind their home. His 88-year-old father lives about 200 feet away in an 1863 log house where John was born and raised. "Itís still got the mud, straw and clay mixed together for mortar," said John. As for hobbies, John is not inclined toward them. "My pallet shop is my hobby. Iím not much for other hobbies. My wife and I bought golf clubs a few years ago, but weíve never used them." The couple has five grandchildren: four boys and a girl.

The renewability of the forest resource is a factor in support of the forest products industry, John pointed out. "Stumpage prices are high right now, but youíve got to remember: itís a renewable resource. You use them or lose them. Younger trees actually have the better material in them. The tree is best when itís used at three-quarters of its age. So cut them and use them while theyíre at their best. They are renewable."

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