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Pallet ‘Runner' Turns Recycler, Grows on Faith, Hard Work
After years as a pallet 'runner,' Charon Powell now is a partner in a pallet recycling business.
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 11/16/2001
TULSA, Okla. — Toddler twins were Charon Powell's first priority nine years ago when she left a bad marriage for the safety of a motel room. All she had was a pick-up truck and pocket money.
When her money quickly ran out, Charon had to think fast because she owed the motel. She had a vague recollection that her estranged husband made money with pallets. She put the twins in their car seats and tucked them into the cab of her Ford F-150 pick-up, then scoured dumpsters for discarded pallets and loaded them up onto her truck.
If she could find someone who would buy the used pallets, she could earn some instant cash, but it was Sunday. A potential buyer she contacted by phone was about to go fishing. After listening to her sincere plea, though, he waited until she arrived with the pallets and paid her $78 for them.
The money was enough to allow Charon to pay her motel bill and keep a roof over the heads of her and the twins. It also was the beginning of a seven-year period during which she supported herself and her children as a pallet ‘runner.’ Scrounging for pallets allowed her to keep an eye on the children at the same time.
The twins, now 11, are still her top priority. Needless to say, they received an early education in pallets. "They can spot a 48-by-40 a mile away," said Charon, a native of Tulsa.
At the pallet company that bought the used pallets that Charon recovered, she met Juan Palma, and eventually he suggested that she start a pallet recycling business of her own. Juan’s company had failed to keep an agreement with him, and he wanted to change employers, so he and Charon formed a partnership, launching ABC Pallets Inc.
In January 2000, ABC Pallets officially began doing business inside an old Tulsa house that was zoned as commercial property. Tulsa is home to about 350,000 people and the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts University. Situated in an oil-producing region in northeastern Oklahoma, the city’s economy is built on oil, mining and manufacturing, as well as newer, high technology businesses. Charon bought a power nailing tool for $99 from a pawn shop and a portable air compressor from Wal-Mart. She and Juan collected used pallets. Hector Palma, Juan’s nephew, previously worked at the pallet recycling company with his uncle; he left the security of that job and took a cut in pay to help Juan and Charon and refurbished ABC’s first pallets, doing about 200 per week.
By August 2001 the company had moved to a bigger facility just down the road. Production has grown to about 3,000 pallets per week, mostly 48x40 GMA-type pallets. ABC has four full-time employees in addition to Charon and Juan.
The partners divide their efforts. On a typical day, Juan makes deliveries. Charon sometimes goes with him to meet with customers or makes sales calls. Hector, who is considered a partner because of his role in helping the company get off the ground, supervises the crew.
The company buys and resells used pallets and repairs damaged pallets for resale. Pallet ‘runners’ are the main source of cores. Many cores are not standard pallets, and they are taken apart in order to recover used lumber. ABC occasionally buys new lumber — mainly oak — for replacement deck boards and stringer. The company makes a small amount of new pallets — small, custom pallets.
To keep pace with growth, ABC has added equipment as it could. ABC has Max power nailing tools for building and repairing pallets. Soon after launching the company, ABC purchased a GMC one-ton flatbed truck. The truck is on the road all day, from early morning until sometimes late at night, either making deliveries or picking up used pallets. The company also has a couple of pieced-together trailers.
The company bought the JBC band saw dismantling machine because it was within the budget of the start-up business. "I had to buy what I could afford," said Charon, who still drives the same Ford F-150 pick-up truck that she had when she started out as a pallet ‘runner.’ The JBC was what she wanted, though. "I like it," she said about the machine’s performance.
So far the young company has been required to pay cash for equipment. So much of ABC’s machinery — like the cut-off saws it uses for trimming deck boards and stringers — has been put together from salvaged pieces of equipment that were scrapped by other pallet businesses. Charon eventually wants to add a notching machine and a plater. A top priority right now is a tractor-trailer.
The business also has grown enough that the company has hired a bookkeeper, and Charon has the bookkeeper exploring possible sources of funding, such as state and federal assistance from small business programs.
ABC has customers in such industries as heavy manufacturing to groceries, metal and plastic wrap. Its growth has mirrored the prosperity of some of its customers. One customer, for example, initially was using 25 pallets per month. That customer now requires 200 pallets per week. Charon is loyal to those customers that have been with her since she was a pallet ‘runner.’ That means sometimes traveling 80 to 100 miles to service them.
ABC Pallets generates a steady volume of scrap wood, filling a 30-yard dumpster once each week. The company pays to have the scrap wood removed, so when someone comes along who can use it, they may have it for free. Someone recently began using some of the scrap material to make pen and letter opener sets. (Charon received one of the first sets as a gift.) In the winter the company gives away scrap for firewood.
Charon and Juan try to keep ABC on a five-day per week schedule except when there is a special order that must be filled. When Charon can carve out some time, she likes to escape for a weekend. "I have a place in the country," she said.
Out of gratitude to Doug Butler, who helped ABC get started, ABC does not delve into the market for new, larger custom pallets. Doug, who helped Charon when no one else would, is the owner of another pallet business, Pallet Supply Co., also located in Tulsa.
Doug gave Charon advice when she started — advice about buying equipment, starting and running a business, and so on. She would not be the co-owner of ABC Pallets, she said, "if it wouldn't have been for him." Because of the special tie to Pallet Supply Co., Charon aims to complement Doug’s business, not compete with it.
When Charon was running pallets, she loaded 50 of them into her F-150 before making a sale. "I don't do the physical labor I did," she said. "I'm not in the physical shape like I was before."
Scrounging pallets was a tough way to earn a living, Charon recalled. At the time, she was the only woman doing it. "I often got threatened" by other competing pallet ‘runners,’ she said, so she bought a can of mace in case she needed it for self-defense. "It was wild."
"Seeing the business grow," said Charon, has been a real pleasure. "It's amazing." Even more important, she said, is the boost the modest success has given her outlook on life. "Before I left an abusive husband, I was a mother, gardener — your basic homemaker in an awful predicament. For years I had been led to believe that I was useless, I could not do anything right, and I would never amount to anything."
Starting from nothing and building a small business has changed her perspective. "I have realized I am not useless. I can do something right, and I have made something of my life. I have established a great relationship with a terrific person (Juan) and have proven to myself that I can be happy and enjoy life."
"If it wasn't for Juan," she added, she would not be where she is today. The synergistic talents the two have brought to the business is something they both appreciate very much. Juan and Hector are natives of La Magdalena Tepeojuma, Puebla, Mexico; Juan became a U.S. citizen in 1998.
Charon once sold 100 pallets to a former senator from the Sooner State who wanted them for hay bales. The retired senator had read an article in a newspaper about Charon and called her. When she delivered the pallets, she had an opportunity to meet him and talk. The encounter is just one of many favorable experiences she has had, meeting people from virtually every kind of business through her dealings with ABC.
There is something else that motivates Charon besides her children and the daily demands of running the business. It is her deep conviction that there is a greater good. As for how she managed to get the pallet recycling business going, she said, "I actually think it was a God-sent thing." And she points to "just being honest" and "just being fair" as crucial factors.
Charon genuinely believes that she will find a resolution to the most difficult problems, and she does. "You go to bed with all the things on your mind," she said. "But you wake up, and everything falls into place."
Besides putting her faith in God, Charon also emphasizes the importance of hard work and cooperation. She strives to deal honestly and fairly with people.
One aspect of the business that Charon is most keen to highlight is the way it has provided her with an opportunity to be a role model to people who are less fortunate than her. Many pallet ‘runners’ she knew are beset with troubles and addictions, and she still has contact with them. As they have continued to come to ABC to sell pallet cores, they have witnessed her faith, her hard work, and her success.
Two weeks before Charon talked with Pallet Enterprise, there was a burglary at ABC. Like other setbacks, though, Charon took it in stride as just one more challenge to face.
"With faith in God, focus and determination, accomplishing goals is inevitable. We all hold the power to make our dreams come true. We need only acknowledge this fact and act on it."
She added, "I wish this story to be an inspiration to others. If we only touch one person's life through this article, then we truly are a success."