John Rock Inc. Continues Along Path of Manufacturing Excellence

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Pennsylvania Company Partners with Converta Kiln for Heat-Treating Pallets

COATESVILLE, Pennsylvania — John Rock Inc. is a leading pallet manufacturing company in the Mid-Atlantic region. The company churns out about 70,000 new pallets each week.
That kind of production requires a lot of lumber and pallet components, and the principals at John Rock are intimately involved with the logging and sawmill companies that supply them with the raw material they need.
Penn Cooper and other members of the company’s management team wear many hats at John Rock, where job titles are scrupulously avoided. An electrician by training, Penn handles sales, procurement and more, including electrical trouble-shooting.
Penn is in contact with loggers and mills regularly, buying raw material. The vantage point gives him a perspective for assessing trends in the sawmill and lumber industry.
“There’s a day of reckoning coming,” said Penn, who was interviewed for this article. Sawmills increasingly are being squeezed between landowners who want top dollar for their standing timber and secondary processors or lumber re­manufacturers that are limited by the price they can get for their finished products. “Our hands are tied by what people are willing to pay for pallets,” Penn observed.
In buying logs and lumber for John Rock, Penn visits or is in contact with loggers and sawmills in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina, and he admires them. “It’s an industry where people care about relationships,” he said. “They care about honor and integrity. It’s an actual business with families, wives and husbands and kids.”
Buying raw material from reputable, reliable companies at a price within the constraints of pallet prices can be a challenge, Penn noted. “I’ve got to find” it, he said. “I’ve got to hunt it down.” Then there’s the matter of price, which may involve negotiation. “It’s not always an easy sell” to persuade a mill to accept a certain price, he added. Understandably, the mills want to get the best price for them, but the John Rock team knows that it must operate within its margins, too.
Raw material accounts for a significant cost in pallet manufacturing operations. When John Rock puts out money to buy hardwood cants or lumber, pre-cut stock and Southern Yellow Pine lumber, the objective is to make the most of it. To that end, the company has made a couple of strategic decisions. One is to focus on a single product: new pallets. The other is to make sure those pallets are competitive in quality.
Being able to supply heat-treated pallets for export application has become an expectation in many sales. John Rock has the capability. In 2004 the company added its first heat-treating system, a system from Tennessee-based Converta Kiln. A year later, John Rock was ready to add a second Converta Kiln pallet heat-treating chamber.
About 20% of John Rock’s pallet production is heat-treated. Timber Products Inspection Inc. (TPI) certifies the company’s pallet heat-treating process.
Converta Kiln staff installed the heat-treating chambers, and it went smoothly, according to Penn. “We provided the site preparation,” including the concrete footings. Converta Kiln helped with a design that raised each chamber 6 inches off the macadam that covers the spacious facility to which John Rock moved in 2005. The 6-inch foundation helps prevent damage to the chamber by forklifts.
As happy as the John Rock management team was with the performance of the first Converta Kiln units, they still went through the process of comparing suppliers and heat-treating systems when it came time to add a second chamber. “We have purchased a lot of equipment,” noted Penn. “We meet with manufacturers, ask for their client lists, and call them. We search long and hard for (equipment) with the least problems.”
Other management team members involved in the decision-making process included owner Bill MacCauley, Ernie Barrett, Elmer Fisher, Ed Healy and Steve Marrs. Ernie oversees shipping and the heat-treating operations. Elmer, who supervises the nailing room, and Ed and Steve also are involved in ensuring that the overall heat-treating process runs smoothly, from assembling pallets to marking them with the stamp to indicate they have been certified heat-treated.
The team at John Rock was persuaded again that Converta Kiln was a reputable, dependable supplier that would provide quality equipment and stand behind it, and that another Converta Kiln would serve John Rock well.
The original Converta Kiln heat-treating system handles 1,800 pallets per cycle. The new one heat-treats 2,400 pallets per cycle. The heat-treating process, fueled by natural gas, takes less than 90 minutes, so the company can easily treat two or three charges per day.
“We knew from day one it would be natural gas,” Penn explained. “Natural gas is pretty competitive” in price. Moreover, he explained, local regulations for burning wood fuel are quite stringent.
“All of our wood is a revenue source,” said Penn, so burning it for fuel is not an attractive option. A horizontal hog from A. R. Smith is used to grind waste wood material, and it is sold through brokers. “We don’t want to be in the mulch business,” said Penn. “Let’s do what we do well.”
Sawdust also is sold through brokers, with most of it eventually going to stables or horse farms. “They take it all year,” said Penn, which is an important consideration in disposing of residuals.
Even the best-made machinery and equipment will not hum along at optimum performance from the instant of operation. There is a learning curve to consider, too. What matters most to the John Rock management team is the responsiveness of a manufacturer to the unanticipated issues that inevitably arise.
Converta Kiln’s systems have provided John Rock reliable performance. Once John Rock got past the initial start-up, it has been “pretty flawless,” Penn reported. Converta Kiln has provided strong support. “Their service has been great. Their installation guy was great, too. Keith Paluso represents their company well.”
Converta Kiln also provided some custom services, helping to design some warning control lights. The lights help ensure that no one is in the chamber when the heat-treating cycle begins. A computer system controls the operation of the heat-treating cycle and records and documents the process.
Converta Kiln also modified the system to enable the heat-treat process to be started from any of the designated computers at John Rock. “That required some real creative (effort),” Penn said.
John Rock moved into a new, 120,000-square-foot plant in Coatesville, Penn., just over a year ago, and the entire yard area is paved. Coatesville is a town of 11,000 about 28 miles southeast of Lancaster.
The new plant was designed without the need for any structural support columns in the interior, which makes it easier to lay out plant equipment or to modify the plant in the future. The pallet industry will continue to change, and John Rock will be able to change with it.
Bill has owned since 1997. He worked for a couple of years as a truck driver before joining John Rock in 1994 and becoming plant manager for the previous owner, who was John Rock.
Bill had not expected an opportunity to become a business owner, but when it arose, he seized it. The company’s growth has exceeded his expectations, he said. John Rock recently expanded further with the purchase of another pallet company in Mifflintown, which is in central Pennsylvania. The addition will enable John Rock to expand its geographic base further and enhance logistics.
“Our goal is to be the best, not the biggest,” said Bill. Nevertheless, the company has the capacity to produce 20,000 pallets daily, he said.
John Rock has a workforce of 90 employees. The plant operates on a normal schedule of four 10-hour days and a half-day on Friday.
Employee retention is high, according to Bill. “I have excellent employees,” he said.
Ninety-eight percent of production at John Rock is new pallets. The company performs recycling services for some long-standing customers.
The cut-up operations consist of four saw lines, and all of the sawing equipment was supplied by Brewer Inc.-Golden Eagle. Three lines normally resaw lumber (3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4) or cants while the fourth line is dedicated to cutting cants.
The main cant cut-up line ends with a Pendu stacker. One of the other saw lines recently was matched with a high-volume stacker manufactured by Automated Industrial Technologies and distributed by G. Wine Sales.
Stacking at the end of the other two lines is done manually. “We do that on purpose,” said Penn. “You can’t do combination lengths” with an automated stacker.
Each Brewer line begins with an unscrambler deck, and the singulated lumber is then cut to the correct length by a multi-trim saw, a three-head, five-head or seven-head. Cants or lumber are resawn on Brewer gang saws or horizontal bandsaws. The dedicated cant line also is equipped with a Brewer Twin Select cut-off saw to cut the cants to the correct lengths.
Pallet assembly operations at John Rock are highly automated. Except for some special or custom orders, pallets are assembled on Viking Turbo 505 nailing machines; the company operates seven of the Viking machines.
John Rock prefers to run new, up-to-date equipment, replacing machinery instead of taking on extensive rebuilding or refurbishing. The Viking nailing machines, for example, typically are ‘retired’ after four years. The company replaced a Brewer single-arbor gang saw earlier this year with a new Brewer double-arbor gang saw.
John Rock manufactures about 1,000 pallet sizes; one customer requires a pallet that is 22 feet long by 4 feet wide.
John Rock has six truck tractors that it uses to make deliveries within a 150-mile radius, and it uses a contract trucker for additional hauling services. Trucking is coordinated where possible to pick up lumber or other raw material on a back-haul.
John Rock has a diversified customer base. Customers are in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals and petrol-chemicals to construction and building supplies and high-tech products. The management team prefers not to align the company’s customer base too closely with one type of business or industry. That type of diversification helps insulate the company to a degree from recession or an economic slow-down that may hit a particular industry.
The company has two suppliers for saw blades. Circular saw blades are serviced by S&D Saw & Tool Inc. and bandsaws are supplied by G&M Bandsaw. Bulk nails for the Viking machines are purchased from Viking, Mid-Continent Nail Corp. and North American.
The economy has become much more global, Penn noted, but companies would be wise to embrace the change and adapt instead of trying to resist, he suggested. He is hopeful the ‘new oak’ campaign by the hardwood industry to promote red oak will bring positive results. Red oak markets are very important to the hardwood lumber industry, he noted, although cyclical changes in consumer tastes affect lumber markets.
John Rock is a member of several trade organizations, including the Appalachian Lumbermen’s Club, the Appalachian Hardwoods Association, the Virginia Forest Products Association, the Penn-York Association and the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association.