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Evolving Martin Pallet Views Itself as a 'Problem Solver'
Martin Pallet: Evolving Ohio pallet manufacturer views itself as a 'problem solver', marks first year in new plant and is running its third cut-up line supplied by Pendu Manufacturing
By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 2/1/2001
MASSILLON, Ohio — Not many 35-year-old business owners have a 20-year plus perspective on their industry. Tom Martin does. "The pallet business as a whole is an underrated business," he said. "It definitely has evolved. I don’t think it receives the respect it deserves."
Tom’s business, Martin Pallets, has evolved too. Located in the heart of eastern Ohio’s manufacturing belt, Martin Pallet got its start in pallet recycling but has been predominantly a manufacturer of new hardwood pallets, crates and boxes for about the past 15 years. Quality concerns led Martin Pallet out of pallet lumber recycling, although the company still recycles pallets.
Tom’s business has been at home in Massillon, a town of 30,000, for more than 20 years. Massillon is about 60 miles south of Cleveland, close to Akron and Youngstown. The region’s employers include long-time industrial staples such as tires and heavy machinery — Joseph Davenport invented the locomotive cowcatcher and cab here — and high-tech newcomers. Martin Pallet serves customers across the spectrum. Its territory extends as far west as eastern Illinois. The company has even supplied pallets for shipment to Ethiopia.
How would Tom describe his business to a stranger he met on an airplane? "I’d tell him we are a manufacturer of hardwood skids and pallets," he said, "and a problem solver."
But if he captured the stranger’s interest, Tom would fill out the big picture of a diverse product line that uses cants for raw material. Martin Pallet has built pallets "as small as six inches by six inches," he said. They were for coffee coasters. It also has supplied huge, over-size shipping platforms, depending on customer requirements. "The largest [we’ve built] is eight feet by 30 feet," said Tom, "for a machine manufacturer."
Martin Pallet celebrated the first anniversary last fall of a new, 12,000-square-foot facility. Situated on 25 acres, the plant houses both the cut-up line and pallet assembly operations.
The company buys cants of regional hardwoods, such as oak, hickory and maple, from sawmills in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and occasionally Pennsylvania. They are processed by Pendu Manufacturing machines arranged in an in-line production line. The line starts with a Pendu unscrambler to singulate the cants and feed them to a Pendu cut-up system. The sized cant material then goes directly to a Pendu gang resaw. Deck boards and stringers exiting the gang saw go directly to a Pendu stacker.
Tom’s satisfaction with Pendu machinery is easy to measure. "It’s the third Pendu line we’ve purchased," he said. Martin Pallet has stayed with the supplier, replacing machines as Pendu has updated its equipment.
"I’ve always felt Pendu offers a fair purchase for the amount [we spend]," said Tom. "Pendu has just proven itself over the years" in terms of consistent, reliable performance.
The Pendu line produces enough pallet components to sell cut stock to other pallet companies. The production rate of the Pendu gang resaw depends on what species of wood the company is sawing. Under optimum conditions, a Pendu gang resaw can saw 50,000 board feet or more in eight hours, according to Pendu.
The Pendu gang resaw also allows Martin Pallet flexibility. The machine can saw material as small as 3/4-inch thick and up to 12x12. Besides manufacturing deck boards and stringers, it can saw dimension lumber, squares, fencing, and more.
The blades on the Pendu gang can be changed quickly, which contributes to high production levels. They can be switched in about 20 minutes. Martin Pallet employs workers in two shifts, but production from the cut-up line is so good that the Pendu line operates only on the day shift.
A Hazledine notcher has been in place at the company since the mid-1980s. "[We] definitely use it in operations," said Tom. "But we probably don’t build 3,000 GMAs in a year at this facility." The low number of GMA pallets the company manufactures means the Hazledine is not used much.
Tom automated some pallet assembly operations in 1998 with an investment in a Viking Champion nailing machine. "I’d have to speak up for Viking," he said. "Viking equipment delivers what is promised. The average production is about 400 pieces in eight hours with one operator on the Viking." The company still makes some pallets by hand, using Stanley-Bostitch power nailing tools for the custom work.
Martin Pallet employs 32 workers; most work on the first shift, which runs 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The second shift works four 10-hour days, Monday through Thursday. An advantage of working on the night shift is that the atmosphere is relatively quiet since the cut-up line does not run. The second shift of workers typically handles specialty pallets, boxes and crates.
Cooperation is the key to planning for custom work. "Ninety percent of every product is designed in-house," said Tom. It is a "collective effort" with several team members participating, from Tom to production manager Jeff Schindlers and afternoon assembly foreman Dave Casper.
The Pendu cut-up line supplies some of the components for boxes and crates. The company also buys some sheeting and yellow pine. "Customers request yellow pine," said Tom.
Tom puts considerable emphasis on serving the individual needs of different customers. For example, Martin Pallet has supplied air-dried pallets for special customers. In fact, in recent years the company has changed the thrust of its business in order to make sure that it supplies customers with products that meet the highest possible standards.
Martin Pallet originally got its start in pallet recycling. "Pallet recycling was the foundation of the company," said Tom. It was started by his father, "an entrepreneur with great insight" whose favorite saying was "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Tom’s father got the business off to a strong start.
Pallet dismantling and recovery and recycling of pallet lumber were a crucial part of the business for many years. The company had operations to disassemble used pallets and to reclaim deck boards and stringers that were used to repair pallets.
Martin Pallet made a significant change two years ago, dropping operations to recover and recycle pallet lumber. "I gave up on disassembly in order to meet the quality our customers expect," said Tom. The quality of recycled pallet parts had deteriorated, he said, and the company had to use an increasing supply of new components to complement the few good parts it recovered from used pallets. It did not make economic sense to keep the tear-down line going, Tom decided.
Martin Pallet still supplies used pallets although it changed its approach to recycling, and pallet recycling makes up about 38% of the company’s business. Like other pallet recyclers, Martin Pallet keeps trailer vans at customer locations to retrieve excess pallets. When the loaded trailers arrive at Martin Pallet, there are basically three possible paths for the arriving pallets. "We segregate by size and quality when the trailers enter the loading dock," said Tom. Then, each pallet is designated either for sale, repair or discard. Some pallets are sold to other pallet recyclers who buy them to dismantle them and recover usable lumber.
Discards are processed in a Morbark model 1050 tub grinder that Martin Pallet added about four years ago. The Morbark "performs well" and easily handles whole pallets, said Tom, who has had experience with other tub grinders.
Tom’s father, Maurice, who is better known as Zeke, runs the grinder part of the business. Besides grinding scrap pallets for Martin Pallet, Zeke provides contract grinding at landfills and demolition sites. Zeke is semi-retired after owning a series of successful businesses. He and another son, Tim, co-founded Martin Pallet, selling the business to Tom 11 years ago.
"The grinder runs (at Martin Pallet) one or two days per week," said Tom, "a four to 10 hour shift." On average, Martin Pallet uses the Morbark to produce about 800 cubic yards of mulch each week. The mulch is sold wholesale to landscapers and also retailed "out of the yard." The company has not entered the colored mulch market but it remains a possibility. Tom has explored the market and has not ruled out adding colored mulch production in the future.
Tom’s father is not the only family member involved in the business. Tom’s brother, Jim, supervises operations of the fleet of 10 tractor-trailers, and his sister, Julie Clay, is the office manager.
"When my father started the business, I was 15 years old," said Tom. "I was at the right age to assist my father and my brother." He worked in the business from the beginning and watched the company grow.
"We’re all real proud of what we’ve accomplished," Tom said of his family and employees. "It’s a true American business story of starting with nothing." His father is a strong, continuing inspiration to him, he said.
In his spare time, Tom has a motorcycle that he likes to ride. "Being a motorcycle enthusiast," he said, "any time I get to ride my Harley Davidson, it’s a good day. It’s not unusual to drive 250 miles on a Sunday. I take long trips every chance I get. I had the rare opportunity to ride to Sturgis, South Dakota for the 60th Annual Sturgis Rally (in 2000)."
"It was definitely an adventure," he added, "being able to experience the heart of our country with 600,000 other motorcyclists." The trip was two days out, a week there, and two days returning. For Tom, who made the trip with three friends and his girlfriend, Brenda Kay, the long distance made it that much more rewarding.
Tom had no formal training in the wood products industry, and he learned about business in "the school of hard knocks, which has been in session seven days a week for 20 years." He benefitted, however, by being part of a family with members who possessed exceptional mechanical aptitude, a hard-driven work ethic, and an abundance of common sense.. "My family comes from a strong maintenance background," said Tom. "It is second nature. I observed and learned from them."
"Necessity is the mother of invention," he added. "If I didn’t have the money to fix something, I figured out a way" to do it.
"We are a key component of industry," Tom continued. "And we have always tried to operate as a professional organization, (realizing) we are very important to the well-being of industry. Take pallets away, and production lines will stop. You can’t make a widget if there is nothing to put it on" once it’s been made.
Tom believes that pallet manufacturers must educate their customers about product quality so they will have a greater appreciation for what they are buying. That kind of emphasis can only benefit the pallet industry as a whole, he said.