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Illinois Pallet Supplier Puts Strong Focus on Worker Safety
Huber Pallet’s Recycling Operations Automated by PRS, Smetco

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2003

LOVES PARK, Illinois -- When Brad and Marcia Huber met at church in 1976, Brad had been working in the pallet industry for just over three years. The couple married later that year, and  they launched Huber Pallet Company in early 1977.

After working for someone else for several years in the early 1970s, Brad had the sense that it was time to start his own business. "In 1976, I became a Christian," he said. "I decided to go out on my own. I went out and started Huber Pallet with a pick-up truck and a repair table."

Marcia kept her full-time job at a pharmaceutical manufacturing business until 1982 while she contributed on a part-time basis to Huber Pallet. Now, she and her husband both have a full-time commitment to their company. Marcia has the title of president and Brad is secretary-treasurer.

"We manufacture wooden pallets and recycle pallets," said Brad. The business is built around "new, used, abused and confused pallets," he explained. The "abused" pallets have been damaged beyond repair. The "confused" pallets are those that are ordered by customers who have given him the wrong dimensions, he said good-humoredly.

Machinery at Huber Pallet

            Huber Pallet’s recycling operations are semi-automated. The repair operations are equipped with a Pallet Repair Systems (PRS) lead deck board remover, a PRS stacker, a Smetco Pallet Up-Ender (tipper), and a PRS conveyor.

Incoming pallets are sorted by four employees. Pallets destined for the repair line are moved by forklift to the infeed conveyor.

The Smetco tipper, which can handle stacks of up to 20 pallets, positions 16 pallets at a time at the work station with the PRS lead deck board remover, and damaged lead boards are removed. Pallets are repaired at the same work station. All repairs are made with recycled lumber. After the replacement board has been fastened, the pallet is placed on the conveyor, which carries it to the stacker.

The repair line could be set up in other ways, noted Brad, but this arrangement works well for the range of pallets the company handles. The repair line can process pallets as large as 60x60 and as small as 40x42.

Brad declined to discuss specific types of pallets his company manufactures and repairs. Huber Pallet supplies a great deal of custom pallets, he indicated. At the time Brad spoke with Pallet Enterprise, "very heavy pallets" were moving down the repair line, he said. Brad does not keep a tally of the number of pallets produced or recycled by the company.

In its lumber recovery operations, Huber Pallet has two Machine Specialists Inc. (MSI) bandsaw dismantlers. (Automated Machine Systems Inc. now owns MSI.)

The MSI bandsaw dismantlers are set up next to each other "in tandem," said Brad. As pallets are dismantled, the loose deck boards and stringers fall to a conveyor that passes beneath the machines. The used lumber is conveyed to two MSI Trim-Trac saws to be cut to the appropriate length. One MSI Trim-Trac is used to cut deck boards and the other is for stringers. The reclaimed deck boards and stringers are stacked and moved by forklift to storage or to work stations where pallets are being assembled.

            The MSI machines were purchased in 1998. "It's been very good equipment," said Brad.

            New pallets are assembled at three work stations. "We have three vertical tables that we manufactured," said Brad. The tables are adjustable. Pallets are assembled with power nailing tools.

            Huber Pallet has its own cut-up operations to make new pallet components. "We buy cants and four-quarter and five-quarter," said Brad. The raw material is usually oak, ash or basswood.

            The cut-up line includes a Baker Products chop saw, a Baker band resaw and a Baker conveyor. The company also has a Conveyor Plus edger. All the machines on the cut-up line were purchased new in 1992. "In 2002 we had Baker come out and update our band resaw," said Brad. The upgrades made the resaw equivalent to a new machine, he explained, so he is "very happy with it."

            Trim ends, broken pallet parts and scrap pallets are put into a Cresswood Recycling Systems grinder to be turned into mulch. The Cresswood grinder, purchased new five years, ago, is a 36-inch wide, horizontal feed machine. It is powered off the electrical grid. "I love it," said Brad. "For our operation, it's a good machine. We're able to produce high quality mulch." The mulch is sold at retail and delivered by Huber Pallet. One of the duties of the company’s maintenance technician is to make sure that waste material is continually fed to the grinder. Sawdust is sold for animal bedding.

            Most pallet customers are within a 60-mile radius of Rockford. The client base includes manufacturers of truck components, fasteners and food products. Huber Pallet owns two Freightliner tractors that it uses to ‘drop and hook’ trailers left at locations of pallet recycling customers.

            The company is preparing to offer heat treating services to customers. Huber Pallet invested in a heat treating system from Bold Design that was being installed in late summer.

Safety on the Job

            Huber Pallet has always placed a high priority on safety, and Marcia gets a good deal of the credit.  "It was basically put in place from the beginning," she said. "I worked for a company that had very stringent safety rules and sold safety equipment." From that vantage point, she developed a deep commitment to reducing risk, a dedication she transferred to Huber Pallet. "Everything we've always bought has had safety features on it," added Brad.

            Brad is disturbed by photographs of pallet companies that reveal guards or other safety apparatus have been removed from machines. He is equally frustrated by photographs of workers in pallet plants who are not wearing personal safety gear, such as protective goggles.

            "We've been able to keep risk down because of our experience level," said Brad. That's important to being attractive to insurers, and Huber Pallet is. The company typically has two or three agents bidding to offer it insurance coverage.

            Even so, unsafe practices of other small pallet companies affects all pallet companies, said Brad. He learned the impact of collective risk the hard way.

            "A few years ago, our insurer dropped us -- not because of anything we did," he explained. It was, instead, "because of small companies" in the pallet industry that the insurer perceived did not have adequate safety practices.

            Brad's agent was able to set things right with the insurer, but the experience made Brad an even stronger advocate for safety throughout the pallet industry. "It's beneficial for companies to provide safety training and equipment," said Brad, because the training and equipment ultimately translate to lower operational costs.

            Huber Pallet has a history of being out front on safety issues, said Marcia. "We did lift truck training prior to regulations" that mandated it, she said, citing one illustration.

            Educating employees about safety begins immediately for new hires. "New employees are trained," said Brad. "We work with OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration). We work with our insurance company."

            New employees are issued safety gloves and gear for eye and ear protection. Worn-out goggles and hearing protection can be traded in for new items at no expense to the worker. Safety gloves become the responsibility of the employee, but workers may buy them at cost through Huber Pallet. Employees also must agree to wear good work boots.

            The comprehensive safety program encompasses the area around individual work stations and the entire facility. The day ends with each employee cleaning all sawdust and scrap from his work area. "It's just an automatic thing," said Marcia, "the last 15 minutes of the day." Removing the sawdust and scrap reduces fire danger; a hot nail from a bandsaw machine could easily ignite a fire if it landed in sawdust, Brad noted.

            Employees respond positively to risk reduction efforts, according to Marcia. "It's well-accepted. They know it's for their safety."

Management and Philosophy

            Huber Pallet has 25 employees, and many have been with the company a considerable period of time. The longest serving employee just completed 19 years.

            In 1998 Huber Pallet purchased a new facility, a former snack-food plant, and moved into it in 1999. The 86,000-square-foot building has plenty of space for operations and storing pallets as well as six docks. Part of the nine-acre site is surfaced with asphalt and provides additional space for storage and sorting incoming pallets. The company’s property is surrounded by a 12-foot-high fence.

            Marcia and Brad belong to the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA). "We've enjoyed being members of NWPCA,” said Marcia, who has served on several association committees. "We went to our first meeting in 1982."

            Loves Park, home to Huber Pallet, is a northern suburb of Rockford, Illinois. Both communities are part of Winnebago County. Rockford is located about 80 miles northwest of Chicago. Numerous machine tool, agricultural implement, furniture, and paint companies have manufacturing facilities in the region, which has a population of about 150,000 people.

            Marcia is a native of a Chicago suburb. She earned a bachelors degree in business administration from a small private college before taking a job with the pharmaceutical company.

            The changes in the pallet industry have been very interesting, said Marcia. She did not know anything about pallets or the pallet industry when she and Brad started the business.

            Brad is from Iowa originally, and his first job after high school was with a local discount chain. When he was laid off, he went to work for a pallet company. Philosophical differences with the owner of the company eventually prompted Brad to strike out on his own. He is happy with the decision he made to start a business. "The challenges of helping customers meet their needs," said Brad, is something he enjoys greatly.

            The couple has two grown children. When Brad and Marcia get time away from the business, they relish traveling.

            The Hubers are very committed to helping their community. "Saturday is my day for Habitat for Humanity," said Brad, referring to the charitable organization that builds houses for the needy. "I'm in charge of complete construction" of a home. Among many other responsibilities, he helps train people who will do the construction work on a house. In one year, the Habitat for Humanity group to which Marcia and Brad belong is building 12 houses. Marcia and Brad serve on the organization’s board of directors. Their church, Rockford First Assembly, is sponsoring a house that will be built.

            Brad and Marcia’s company also sponsors a Little League team, and Marcia said they have great fun doing so.


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