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Adaptability Key to Success for Hunt Corporation: Niche Pallet Company Cashes In On Grinding As Large Customer Gradually Phases Out Wood Pallets
HC Hunt Corp: Niche pallet company adapts by expanding logistics and grinding services as a key customer gradually phases out wood pallets. Larger Cresswood grinder adds necessary muscle to get the job done.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 12/1/2007
Hunt Corporation has gone through a number of reincarnations since it was first started by Jeff Hunt’s grandfather in the late 1940s. While the nature of the business has changed significantly over the years, one constant has been that the business’ primary customer was initially and remains a larger beer producer in the St. Louis area, where it continues to add value to the relationship, even as the customer gradually phases out wood pallets.
“We started as a warehouse in the 1940s,” explained Jeff Hunt, who grew up in the pallet business and now operates Hunt Corporation. “My grandfather bought land down here, which was very rural (now outer suburbs), and there were two rail lines coming out of the city. He bought some ground that bordered on both those lines and there was a connecting spur between them. Outside of the city it was the only one.”
Jeff’s grandfather was a manager for the beer company. At that time, Jeff noted, managers of large companies were permitted to run other businesses that catered to the large employer. The original intent of the Hunt operation was to store materials for the brewery.
In 1953, Jeff’s dad was just coming back from the Korean War, and he took note of all the wooden pallets that were accumulating at the site. “They were getting broken and no one seemed to know what to do with them,” Jeff related. “They had their carpenters trying to put them together again, and they did a very good job but they only did about 8 per day,” he laughed. “Needless to say there was an opportunity, and like most pallet businesses it was started on a whim, and so the family started into the pallet business. My father repaired his first pallet in August of 1953. He just had a one man shop and he grew from there.”
The pallet repair operation started in an old dairy barn. It was rumoured to be the oldest concrete barn west of the Mississippi River.
The pallet repair business blossomed as the beer company expanded. Jeff grew up in the business as a “young kid.” He studied architectural engineering but stayed in the business, and went back to college 10 years later and got a business degree and a master’s degree in industrial psychology.
“I think that was one of the best things I did in terms of education, because it helped me work with people, as well as with employees,” Jeff explained. “People are the common denominator. You always have to work with people. He also did some psychology work for the beer customer.
Jeff became a chef and had a short stint in the restaurant business. He currently teaches culinary arts at a local junior college. He said, “I’m in the pallet and the palette business. It’s just spelled different depending on the time of the day.”
One of the most memorable times for Jeff was working with the late pallet researcher, Dr. Walt Wallin of the US Forest Service, in the early 1980s. “I spent a couple of summers with him and I learned a phenomenal amount about how things work. Dr. Wallin was a great mentor of mine.”
Jeff also benefited from working with English pallet consultant John Meade on many occasions.
As a result of Dr. Wallin’s very strong influence, the Hunt family operation took a totally different approach to their pallet business. “At that time we were mainly a pallet repair operation,” Jeff explained, “but we turned it into a pallet remanufacturing operation.” Jeff explained that the repair specification became the new pallet specification, and there was no tolerance for deviation from that. “We did that from 1981 on, so that was a turning point. The repair was all done with new wood, specified nails, and so on.”
Over the years, Hunt Corporation has provided sorting and repair services for a number of items handled by the beer company, including can pallets, wooden top frames, and other items.
Jeff proudly noted that there is now a fourth generation employee at Hunt Corporation, his daughter, Linsey, who is heading up marketing efforts, in addition to currently undertaking a university marketing degree.
The beer customer has one footprint size, which is 32 x 37”. Its pallet pool includes a conventional slatted pallet, as well as a plywood deck bolted pallet, and the plastic pallet, which is gradually displacing the wood units. “What we are doing now, we have gone full circle,” Jeff commented. “When I first started, pallet remanufacturing was the only thing we did. Now we are back in warehousing, in the reverse logistics end of it.”
While the company still remanufactures pallets, it is a less important function than in the past. If the wood pallets are usable they are put back into the system, and if they are broken, they are either remanufactured or destroyed. While no new slatted wood pallets have been purchased for 10 years, amazingly, they still comprise about 15% of the beer company’s pallet float — or about 3 million units. “It tells you something about the longevity of those pallets,” Jeff enthused. “They were well made and well maintained, so they are still around.”
As the wood pallet inventory gradually decreases, Jeff reiterated, the role of his company has changed. “We have evolved from a repair hub to a sorting and destruction hub.”
The beer company plans to maintain its separate wood draft beer pallet, which is of very heavy construction. “They have tried to find a plastic version that is feasible but they can’t,” Jeff said. “It’s just too tough of a pallet so they are still buying wood for that.” The draft pallet is 30 x36” with a weight of about 70 pounds. It features a pair of 3x4 outside stringers and a 3x6” center stringer. Deck boards are a full 5/4”.
“When pallets come in, they are sorted, segregated, remanufactured, stored, and shipped as needed,” he summarized. “Whatever doesn’t make the grade is thrown into the grinder”.
The 9-bolt plywood deck pallets are cut apart with a Smart Products dismantler. “We run them right through,” Jeff explained. “It is just a cheap carriage bolt. All the metal comes out and then the wood goes into the grinder.”
Jeff remarked that this not a normal application for a dismantler. He visited with the Smart Products people and they were very helpful in coming up with the right saw for the carriage bolt cutting application. “The blade we use has more teeth per inch and we run it at a lower speed, so we seem to get the best of both worlds with that,” Jeff explained.
“The guys we have doing it are very skilled, and they shoot for getting a certain number out of a blade. You have to watch the heat on that. Any of the saw guys will tell you that it is all about the heat.”
In its repair operation, Hunt Corp. uses a stacker made by Pallet Repair Systems.
Wood pallets that cannot be reasonably repaired are fed into the heavy duty Cresswood HF70 grinder. “It has been a real workhorse for us. It exceeds expectations. And the Cresswood company has always been very supportive.”
Jeff has had a relationship with Jack Cress that stretches back many years. “One of the things that has really impressed me about Jack over the years is his adaptability,” Jeff observed. “He’s on top of pretty much everything that is going on in the market - a very knowledgeable businessman.”
In the mid 1990s Jeff purchased a 36” machine from Cresswood to deal with scrap wood from pallets. “It worked great for scrap,” Jeff said, “but as the destruction of whole pallets became an increasingly significant part of what we were doing, we went back to Jack and needed a bigger grinder to handle large volumes of whole pallets. We decided that the 70 inch HF grinder would be the way to go.”
The Cresswood machine is situated in a building devoted to grinding and coloring. Ground material is fed by bobcat or dump bins into an Amerimulch coloring unit. “It is a computerized system,” Jeff explained, “and you can dial it in to whatever color you want.” After drying, the mulch is ready to be sold – predominantly to landscapers involved in the local housing market. While housing has slowed down in other parts of the country, the housing market in the St. Louis area has remained strong, as has the demand for his mulch.
Another growing part of the Hunt Corporation business has been the sorting of plastic pallets. Jeff estimates that he does about 25% of pallets returning to the beer company. Aside from the wood pallet inspection, remanufacturing and grinding operation, plastic pallets are also processed. The plastic pallets are inspected for top deck or bottom damage that might compromise performance along conveyors or at automated palletizers. Average sorting volumes may swing from 6,000 to 35,000 pallets weekly. During periods of peak demand when all pallets are urgently needed, the beer company may bypass the 3rd Party sorting service performed by Jeff and bring back all pallets directly to the brewery.
Looking to the future, Jeff emphasized that his company still holds a solid reputation as a specialist in the remanufacture of high quality multiple use block pallets. “We remanufacture to the new pallet spec with all new replacement parts and high quality nails, done in a specified way and placement,” he said.
Jeff sees his company’s success moving forward as more of the same - ensuring that the customer needs are always met all the time, through a practice of “Watch, listen, do.”
“It seems everyone is always looking for the next big thing for our business, or the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end,” Jeff summarized, “but in my experience it’s always the small insignificant “diamond in the rough” that turns out to be the next big thing. It just has to be recognized as such, nurtured, and maintained.” For this small, long serving pallet company, that spirit of adaptability and service has enabled it to continue to succeed as the market has evolved over time.