Pallet Maker Likens Employee Team to Pit Crew

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Brewer, Viking Key Machinery Suppliers to John Rock; Pallet manufacturer has unique management style.

DOWNINGTOWN, Penn. — The Valley Forge area to the west of Philadelphia is not exactly known as the center for the lumber industry, at least not since the days when George Washington’s troops built a primitive winter encampment here during the American Revolution.

But it is a place that prides itself on resourcefulness and determination, and pallet manufacturer John Rock Inc. certainly has managed to position itself as a market leader using healthy doses of both.

John Rock is located in Downingtown, which is less than 40 miles west of Philadelphia and 10 miles from Valley Forge. The company has good access to highways going east and west and the Interstate 95 north-south corridor. Its market area is within a radius of about 150 miles. John Rock has customers in such industries as chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive, clothing, and others.

(The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association recently conducted a two-day seminar in Philadelphia on motivating and retaining employees and safety-related issues; the event included a plant tour of John Rock.)

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The company was founded by John Rock in the late 1970s and moved to its current location in Downingtown in 1980. It is run by a management team headed by Bill MacCauley, who joined the company in 1994 as plant manager — after previously working for a small pallet recycling company — and bought the business in 1997.

John Rock’s 45 employees, working in one shift, produce about 40,000 new pallets per week. It makes hundreds of different size and footprint pallets, including small and large hand-made pallets. The company manufactures a large volume of GMA pallets; other high-volume sizes are 48×48 and 42×42.

The company cuts about half of the lumber it uses with the remainder being pre-cut. John Rock buys hardwood cants, 4/4, 5/4 and 6/4 hardwood material, and pre-cut hardwood and aspen pallet parts. Cants and other material are obtained from sawmills in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia while cut stock is purchased from suppliers ranging from Alabama to Canada.

John Rock’s cut-up operations are based on machines supplied by Brewer Inc. Last year the company added a complete new Brewer line starting with an unscrambler deck that feeds to a five-head multi-trim saw and an infeed to a model 9912 gang saw. The line is augmented by a Brewer two-head horizontal band saw system. Four years ago the company installed a new Brewer Twin Select cut-off saw system and a model 9112 gang saw. The two Brewer lines do all the cutting.

The company also added a Brewer notcher in 1999. A custom-made unscrambler supplied by Brewer allows the notcher to run faster than normal while using only one operator. Rounding out the equipment is a Pendu stacker.

In its pallet assembly operations, John Rock is somewhat unique. It is one of the only pallet manufacturers that owns and operates four Viking Turbo 505 nailing machines. The company bought one in 1997 with a flipper nester, a second in 1998, and its third Viking Turbo 505 was installed in 2000. Early this year it traded in the first machine for a new 2001 Turbo 505 and also added a 1999 model.

Bill spoke very highly of his two principal machinery suppliers, Viking and Brewer. “They have top-notch equipment, provide great service, and have been excellent to work with,” he said.

John Rock also is equipped with a 1990 Campbell Excalibur tandem nailing machine. The Campbell Excalibur “is one of the fastest around,” said Bill. The machine once nailed 4,264 pallets in a nine-hour shift.

(Campbell went out of business in 1991. GBN Machine and Engineering Corp. was founded the same year, and GBN continues to offer an improved version of the tandem nailing machine under the Excalibur model name.)

Two of the Vikings and the Campbell occupy space in the main building with the new Brewer line and the Brewer notcher. The other Viking Turbo 505 is in another building. “We could have put the third Viking in the main building, but it wouldn’t have been as efficient with the operators getting in each other’s way,” said Bill.

One other piece of equipment occupies a corner of the yard that was reclaimed from what once had been a pile of junk, debris and overgrown weeds. An Arasmith 54 horizontal feed grinder sits atop a special feeding dock that was built by John Rock employees.

“When we first got it, the company we bought it from just wasn’t impressed with its performance,” said Penn Cooper, a machinery technician and chief electrician at John Rock. “It can grind so much material that it can basically gag itself on material. I only had to clear a jam like that once to decide that this would never do.”

Penn modified the machine and re-wired it. “We debated about how to fix it so that it wouldn’t jam,” he said. “In the end we installed both an amp meter and a tachometer, which sense either an increased draw in current from the motor bogging down or a drop in rpms of the cutting head. In either case, the sensors slow the amount of material being fed into the grinder. It never jams now and has almost tripled its output.”

Every piece of equipment either has been modified by John Rock or built to custom specifications. For example, Steve Marrs extended the outfeed rollers on the Campbell Excalibur by an additional 12 feet in order to allow production to continue even if the last stack of finished pallets has not been removed. Joked Bill about their hands-on modifications. “In order to be part of the management staff,” he said, “you have to know how to weld.”

The company has pallet recycling operations although recycling represents only about 10% of the business at John Rock. Employees who work in the pallet recycling shop are the same ones who assemble any pallets that are hand-made.

John Rock also manufactures log home kits from Western red cedar. The components are manufactured on the same Brewer cut-up line that was installed in 1996.

The Brewer line that was installed in 1996 was not exactly a planned event. It was the result of overcoming a disaster that could have easily destroyed the company. John Rock experienced a devastating fire that destroyed half the company’s facilities that year, and the new Brewer line replaced machinery that was destroyed in the blaze.

After the fire, Jeanne Ryan, who runs the office and order desk and manages the office, managed to keep everything organized and flowing so well that every customer order was filled without delays. Customers were not impacted and were mostly unaware of the destruction the company had sustained. Her efforts allowed the rest of the management staff to devote their energies to recovering from the fire. “Jeanne is so good that we have customers who won’t talk to any of the rest of us,” said Bill. “She just takes care of them.”

What has driven John Rock’s success is an approach that draws deeply upon unleashing the talents of each staff member and finding the perfect spot for them on the ‘team.’ “One thing you need to know right from the start,” explained Bill. “It’s our employees. If you don’t have a good team behind you, everything else is wasted effort, and in our business efficiency is what we focus on. We do that by taking care of our people, and — believe me — they take care of us.”

In his book, “Principle Centered Leadership,” Steven Covey wrote that business leadership either follows a mechanical or agricultural paradigm. If a company is considered like a machine, it solves problems by replacing ‘defective’ parts through personnel changes, plugging in new processes, or simply replacing equipment. In the agricultural paradigm, the company works at ‘growing’ personnel, processes, and the business in general — much like tending a garden.

While both points of view certainly have their merits, Bill has hit upon what seems like a perfect fusion of both. Call it a race team paradigm. “I like to think of us as the Rainbow Warriors of the pallet industry,” said Bill, borrowing the former nick-name of Jeff Gordon’s highly skilled NASCAR Winston Cup crew. The comparison to a race car pit crew brings a smile to Bill’s face. In this race team paradigm, every part of John Rock is built around finding the best way to do things and handling emergencies with the creativity and efficiency born of real teamwork.

Perhaps the best testimony of how effective this business approach has been is the positive effect it has had on employees. While other pallet manufacturers are scrounging to find good workers for vacant positions, John Rock has a waiting list of potential employees, people who want to be apart of the team. “The word is out,” Bill said. “People want to work here.”

What has created such a strong team environment at John Rock? Part of it is a management team that is not afraid to try something new or roll up its shirt sleeves to get things done. On any given day, members of the management team are on the floor of the plant or in the yard, working side-by-side with the rest of the employees whenever they are needed. For example, Steve, mentioned above for modifying the Campbell nailing machine, takes care of paying the bills at John Rock. When TimberLine visited the company’s plant, he was helping a machine operator make repairs, but he wasn’t standing there, holding a flashlight. Steve was up to his elbows in the machine, turning wrenches to get it fixed and up and running again.

That kind of effort by management personnel has a profound effect on production workers and machinery operators; the latter know they can count on the leadership to work as hard as they do and to pitch in if they need help. It is a work climate that helps foster mutual respect and understanding between management and workers.

Although Bill is the owner and president, his business card bears no title, and he is slow to refer to his position unless the situation requires it, such as dealing with his bank. Not surprisingly, none of the others on the management team has clearly-defined, formal jobs titles. They are deliberately vague, allowing them to handle whatever job needs to be done instead of being pigeon-holed to perform certain tasks or activities.

Penn is another example. As with the rest of the management team, he has two sets of jobs, each matched to his skills. One set of duties deals with relationships and activities outside of the company while the other set deals internally with other John Rock employees. In addition to working as a machinery technician and chief electrician, Penn also handles day-to-day interactions with suppliers and some customers. He is known as John Rock’s ‘ambassador of good will’ — the company’s public relations manager of sorts.

One of Steve’s ‘outward’ activities is accounts payables manager, but he also can do about any task within the company, from millwright to truck driver or mechanic — all with competence and a healthy level of experience.

“This allows us to focus on putting our best talent on a particular job while letting the rest of us support whoever that might be to the best of our abilities,” said Bill, who views himself as the company’s “crew chief.” The unique division of labor “builds extraordinary teamwork,” he said.

John Rock does not depend only on strong leadership and innovative management concepts in order to get the work done, though. Like many teams in NASCAR, the company pays financial incentives or bonuses based on group performance to keep the entire staff working efficiently toward common goals. If the group performs well, all benefit. Incentives in some cases are as much as a full week’s pay per month. By the same token, if there is an accident or a piece of equipment is damaged because of recklessness or irresponsibility, and overall company performance is adversely impacted, it comes out of everyone’s pocket. Everyone answers to and is accountable to one another.

As Bill explained, “Everyone on the floor has the right and the responsibility to stop the entire process if they think something is wrong, even if the person who made the mistake is me. That keeps the number of errors way down and keeps everyone looking out for one another.”

Bonuses are handed out regularly, and everyone looks forward to ‘bonus day’ with a spirit of celebration. Incentives help create an atmosphere of pride of workmanship. With tangible rewards given on a fairly frequent basis to recognize excellence in group performance, employee morale is high. Management also looks for additional ways to reward workers, such as paying for employees and their families to enjoy a day at Hershey Park, a nearby amusement park.

It is difficult to argue that the company’s emphasis on personnel does not work, especially in light of its accomplishments. John Rock has tripled production the last five years while the number of employees has remained virtually unchanged. During the same period there have been only two injuries. “It isn’t that we simply added machines,” said Bill. “It’s using what we have intelligently and having everyone of us thinking, ‘Okay, how can we do this even better?’ ”

The positive atmosphere in the work environment applies equally to dealings with customers and suppliers. “We really try to spoil our customers as much as possible,” said Penn. “We want them to know that they can depend on us, and we do everything we can to reinforce that. We give them a great product, we get it to them when they need it, and we do it without any fussing around. And if our pallets cost a bit more than other manufacturers, our customers don’t mind it as much because they know they are getting value from our product and from us.”

“The same goes for our vendors and suppliers,” Penn continued. “They know that when they start doing business with us, we are looking for a relationship, not just a shipment.”

The company’s unusual management approach has given John Rock the reputation of being an efficient and top quality manufacturer of pallets and custom containers. And using the race team paradigm, it is constantly looking for ways to improve in order to stay ahead of competitors.

As the pallet industry races into the future, one thing is for certain: Bill MacCauley’s John Rock crew knows this is a race they can win.

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