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Ohio Pallet Manufacturer Is Reborn, Rejuvenated Following Disastrous Fire: Troymill Wood Products Rebuilt
Troymill Wood Products: Ohio-based pallet manufacturer is rejuvenated after disastrous fire. Troymill rebuilt, planning and equipping for the future to accommodate growth and expansion.
By April Terreri
Date Posted: 2/1/2008
MIDDLEFIELD, Ohio – Just over two years ago, the owners of Troymill Wood Products found themselves discussing what owners of any business never want to even think about: whether or not to continue running the business.
Troymill, a pallet manufacturing company, suffered a fire in October of 2005. The main production building burned to the ground. “It was a Friday about 9:30 a.m., and we were all on break,” recalled Keith Grinberg, general manager.
The fire began in the dust collection system, probably before the 9 a.m. break began. It had a good start before employees noticed it as they returned from their break, when they saw smoke billowing from the dust collection system.
“Over the next eight hours, we all kind of watched as the 25,000 square-foot building burned right to the ground,” said Keith.
There were no nearby fire hydrants. “Up here we have volunteer fire departments, and they had to bring water in to us,” continued Keith. “So by the time they brought in the water, the fire had gotten too strong to put out.”
Surviving the Fire
Early the next morning after the fire, the owners, managers and other key personnel gathered. The meeting included the three principal executives, Keith, co-owner and plant manager Crist Miller and sales manager Brian Schaefer, the two other owners, Marvin Schaefer and Steven Belman, and the foremen and the sales staff. They convened in one of the remaining buildings to decide what to do next.
“We could abandon the company, or we could pull together and try to build back what we lost and live to fight another day,” Keith said. “We all decided we had something good going on here, and we decided to rebuild.”
On Monday, just three days after the fire, the company really showed its mettle, shipping 17 loads of pallets that were scheduled to be delivered that day. “We never missed a load after the fire, and our sales were higher over the next 12 months than they were in the 12 months prior to the fire,” said Keith. “We are very proud of that.”
How did they accomplish the feat? Determination had a lot to do with it. The company’s seven salesmen continued to sell. With the main production building and all its equipment destroyed, however, they had to scramble to begin manufacturing pallets again.
“We had a small shop about five miles down the road, and we bought some inexpensive cut-up equipment to put in,” Keith said. “Instead of making all our pre-cut lumber, we bought a lot of what we needed from other shops. Some of our guys volunteered to work a second shift.” Although it cost the company more to purchase pre-cut stock, most of the added expense was covered by its fire insurance policy.
One reason why Troymill managed to deliver 17 loads of pallets just a few days after the fire was that it had about three weeks’ inventory of pre-cut lumber. “We still had the ability to nail in our nailing buildings, so we used the pre-cut stock,” said Keith. “That gave us time to figure out how we would get more pre-cut lumber, what we could make or what we had to purchase.” The three weeks’ worth of inventory bought Troymill the time it needed to set up new, temporary cut-up operations and make arrangements to buy more pre-cut stock.
Crist designed a new building and also was responsible for choosing replacement equipment. The owners decided to build a larger production building, 35,000 square feet, to accommodate the company’s intended growth over the next several years.
Before the fire the company operated out of four buildings. Now, three buildings house its operations, which are more efficient. “We closed up that little shop of ours that saved our business and consolidated its operations into our new building,” Keith explained.
In designing a new plant, the company’s first priority was to ensure it could survive another fire in the future. Troymill created a pond on its property so it would have an adequate source of water in the event of another fire. It installed sprinklers in all the buildings – the water is supplied by the pond — and added a fire suppression system in the new dust collection system.
Troymill has been in business more than 20 years. It ships 10-16 truckloads of products per day. About 60% of its business is pallets, 30% is groove stock, pre-cut lumber, blocking, crates and containers, and the remainder is specialty wood products, mainly for industrial customers.
The company manufactures a lot of 48x40 pallets, but it also does a lot of odd and custom sizes, including large pallets and skids. “I don’t think we sell the exact same pallet to more than one customer,” said Keith. “What we do is make products according to our customers’ specs and sell those products to them. Although we do a lot of commodity pallets, we generally don’t sell the exact same pallet to multiple customers.”
Troymill’s customers include steel companies, consumer products companies, industrial companies and government agencies that buy specialty products. It sells pallets from 20 inches long to over 30 feet long, groove stock, coil cradles, boxes as tiny as 10 inches square to crates large enough to ship an automobile.
From its facilities in Middlefield, Ohio, which is near Cleveland, Troymill ships to customers within a 200-mile radius. Its market area is predominantly Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. “Our seven salesmen scour the region for new customers,” said Keith.
Troymill deals with about 30 sawmills, buying cants and lumber for raw material. The company mainly buys mixed hardwoods, but it also buys pine lumber. It buys cants in such dimensions as 3-1/2x6, 4x6 and 5-1/2x6 in lengths ranging from 7-16 feet.
The company’s 55 employees are nearly 100% Amish people, many of them family members. Workers are paid hourly or piece rate wages. Troymill offers employees a 401k retirement savings plan and profit sharing plan.
It took a little over a year for Troymill to construct its new building, equip the new plant, and start producing pallet lumber. Over the following year, second and third production lines were added in.
“Our biggest line is our workhorse line, which includes a Brewer gang saw,” Keith said. “It’s a very fast, very efficient production line.”
This main line for processing cants into pallet parts begins with a Baker Products four-head cut-off saw that cuts the cants to length. Next, the cants feed inline directly to the Brewer gang saw to be resawn into stringers. Runners that require notching are conveyed to a Keystone double-head notching machine equipped with Profile Technology cutting tools. The finished pallet parts go to a Keystone stacker.
“This is our primary line that does the bulk of our runner stock,” explained Keith. “It can also produce deck boards for pallets, but primarily we use it to make runners because we have another line to make deck boards.”
The second line that went into production is the Keystone line, which is used to remanufacture rough lumber into pallet parts and other products. It begins with a Keystone multi-trim saw to cut the lumber to length. The material then can be resawn either on a Keystone two-head horizontal bandsaw or a Keystone rip or gang saw. “What we do on this line is split and cut to make groove stock,” continued Keith. “We split boards here and we also do some specialty products on this line.”
The third production line consists of a Baker five-head horizontal bandsaw system that is used to resaw cants into deck boards. The cants are cut to length first with a package saw, and the
Troymill has two automated nailing machines. A Viking Turbo 505 pallet assembly system operates in one building and a GBN nailing machine in another. About 15 employees also work in the same buildings, assembling pallets by hand with pneumatic nailing tools. The company uses Stanley-Bostitch collated nails for pneumatic nailing tools and buys bulk nails for its machines from Viking and Mid Continent Nail Corp.
The company also has the capability to heat-treat pallets. About 20% of its pallet production is heat-treated. A Boldesign system can heat-treat more than a truck-load of pallets at one time. The heat-treating process is monitored by computer.
“We can watch from one of our computers to see how much more time it has to go,” said Keith. “We insert probes into the lumber, and they send signals to the computer that tell us when it’s been heated for the appropriate amount of time.”
Keystone, a Pennsylvania-based machinery manufacturer specializing in equipment for sawmills and wood processing, refers to its gang saw as a rip saw. The company customized the machine for Troymill by adding a planer head. The planer head precedes the saws and can plane both the top surface of the cant and the bottom surface before it is ripped.
Keystone has supplied versions of this custom machine to companies that manufacture flooring. Troymill manufactures crates for a customer that requires the lumber to be surfaced on two sides, and the Keystone machine is used to make these special components.
“The planer is really a sizer because it shaves off as much material as necessary, including any imperfections or abnormalities, so we can plane it to whatever the required specs are,” said Keith. “It is a good example that shows our new equipment can do more than our old equipment could, so we can operate much more efficiently.”
Troymill uses the Keystone cut-up line to make, among other products, groove stock that is used to stabilize and ship unit loads of pipe products. First, 6x6 cants are cut to the appropriate length. The material then goes through the two-head bandsaw to produce three pieces of 2x6. The rip saw resaws the material into 2x3, and hogger blades on the same saw arbor cut the grooves at the same time. This groove stock is used to hold metal banding or strapping. The customer places the grooved stock under and on top of the pipe products to form a load, and stabilizes the load with metal bands.
Disasters can either break a company or make it stronger. Troymill has flourished. “I think this is what happened to us because we had the opportunity, for better or worse, to start the new shop as if it was a blank piece of paper,” said Keith. “One of the things Crist did was to design the shop to be exactly the way we wanted as opposed to just replacing what we lost. We wanted to be faster and more efficient and to become a bigger, better, stronger company. It’s been a difficult two years, but because of the fire we are now more efficient and more competitive than we ever were before.”
Troymill plans to broaden its product offerings and will begin to expand into recycled pallets in 2008. The new plant building was designed and constructed to accommodate future expansion.
The management team at Troymill knows that, in order for it to provide strong service to its customers, Troymill must receive strong support from its vendors and suppliers. Keystone and Brewer provided that level of premium customer service as Troymill outfitted its new plant and put it into operation, reported Keith.
“They were both great as we rebuilt, and the owner of Keystone has visited here numerous times, and he and Crist have become good friends over the course of this journey of ours. Both suppliers really understood what we were trying to accomplish, and they gave us what we needed to put everything together. They designed our equipment with Crist’s assistance to be able to do what we required.”
Customer service is one of the distinctive characteristics that sets Troymill apart from other pallet suppliers, according to Keith. “It’s very important to us. We try to do everything right the first time. If things don’t work out, we work very hard to make sure our customers are satisfied. We lose very few customers because of this.”
In addition to the challenges the company faced after the fire, Troymill and other business also have been fighting escalating costs in recent years, Keith noted. “Basically, we’ve been hit in three places: lumber prices, steel prices, which affect the cost of nails, and fuel prices, which affects our costs for trucking. The higher fuel prices have hurt us more than anything, so we have to deal with that through fuel surcharges to our customers. We have to increase our prices when necessary, as well. It’s a competitive business, so we must be able to offer a good product as well as a good price.”
The company’s plans for the future include increasing automation. It also wants to be able to use residual material to fuel a heating system for the plant’s radiant heated floor and to find more profitable markets for sawdust and residuals.
“As for the new equipment, I think we are starting to see the benefit, and hopefully our customers are experiencing the benefit of our redesign,” said Keith. “Because of the efficiencies of our new equipment, we have not had to raise prices as much as some of our competitors. This new equipment will enable us to be more competitive, and we plan to grow significantly.”