A Big Piece of Wood Work
Making a wooden pallet is not a high-end craft. But building and running the biggest pallet, dunnage and custom crate business in Alabama and the Mississippi/Florida Gulf Coast is a feat that really stacks up.
Jamie Vela prepares to load lumber into a Viking Nailing Machine.
Deep in the expansive terrain of Baldwin County is a 20-acre crate, pallet, biofuel, mulch and more producer that prospered during the recession, profits from wood scraps and transforms sawdust into gold. And according to its founder and president, “Anyone can do it.”
“Here is my philosophy,” says Bay Wood Products President Jimmy Wilson, from his County Road 64 office, embedded in a skyline of stacked pallet and crate towers. “What we do here is not that difficult; anybody can build a pallet.”
But he adds, “What sets us apart from many others in this industry is we service our customers to death.” In a good way.
“We become part of their warehouse,” Wilson adds about the company’s operating philosophy. “We inventory their stock and know what our customers buy and need on a regular basis. We anticipate our products’ use and will alert a customer when it’s time to order. Most people in this business don’t do that.”
“Servicing your customer to death” may not be a recession-proof firewall for everyone, but it works for Bay Wood Products. Since its 1994 startup in Baldwin County, the company has never experienced a layoff and has achieved revenue growth as high as 24 percent a year, since 2010.
Robertsdale’s works of wood began with 19 employees. Today more than 130 workers transform timber boards into pallets, crates, mulch and biofuels, earning $20 million revenues in 2014, an 18 percent increase over 2013. About 2.5 million board feet of lumber exits the gates every month.
The saw buzzing lumber is music to the ears of Wilson, a former golf cart battery sales rep, who at one time in life was laid off work, with a wife, a baby and no insurance.
In 1989 when the business’ new owners no longer needed Wilson’s sales rep services, he became a general contractor of landscaping, roof repairs, construction work, and as he puts it, “anything to make a dollar.” On a fateful October day that year, one of his customers offered another job — manager of North Star Lumber Co., a pallet shop. It was Wilson’s introduction to the pallet business.
He had no experience with wood products, but he knew a lot about an infant son with no insurance. “I jumped on the opportunity,” recalls Wilson, “And I called my wife first, and my mother second.” After congratulating her son, mom told him of an opportunity in North Carolina with a man also in the wood products business. She suggested her son give him a call. He did. They became friends. In 1993, Wilson was offered a manager position, then became a stockholder of his friend’s foreclosed and resurrected wood products firm in Cantonment, Florida.
The fledging company renamed and relocated to Robertsdale in 1995. “The State of Florida is not as friendly to industry as Alabama is,” says the president and Pensacola resident. “Alabama is more receptive to what we do and is friendlier in business regulations.”
In the early days, he confessed his lack of knowledge about running a pallet business. But a mentor reassured him about his strong work ethic, saying to the new recruit, “I can teach you the rest. I know you are not afraid of work, and I know you can sell ice cream to Eskimos.”
Bay Wood Products sells most of its goods within 150 miles of the Robertsdale plant site, with principal clients in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida. The chemical industry accounts for about 50 percent of total volume, followed by steel and then building and construction.
The Baldwin County spot is currently the largest single-site producer of wooden pallets, dunnage and custom crates in Alabama and the Mississippi/Florida Gulf Coast. “I never dreamed we would grow to this size,” says Wilson, referencing 2012, 2013 and 2014 revenue growth of 7.4 percent, 20 percent and 18 percent respectively. “I thought if we could get to $10 million in sales, I would have arrived. We went by that figure screaming.”
Rounding out the pallet and crate business is a new venture, biofuel and mulch. “Mulch is seasonal,” says Wilson. “It accelerates in the spring and summer, but the main thing mulching did was add a new revenue stream out of something we used to pay for to be disposed.” He estimates monthly revenues of about $20,000 from the mulch business his company started last July.
Innovation and automation contributes to Bay Wood’s success, including a 2002 purchase of a Viking nailing machine, 2003 and 2008 installations of heat-treating units for wood and implementing Pallet Design System (PDS) computerized technology programmed for customer requirements in every pallet made.
But good machines, up-to-the-minute computer technology and durable saws are only as good as the people running them. And the company’s leader attributes many of the milestones to people, employees like Dewitt Dukes, one of several who has been there since day one.
“Jimmy Wilson told me back in 1994, ‘If you stay with me, I’ll stay with you,’” recalls Dukes, a veteran saw operator. “And that’s what he’s done. So far, so good.”
Mill workers are chosen not necessarily for their woodworking experience but for their ability to understand math and read a tape measure. “That sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many applicants we cut out,” says Wilson. “I thought all boys were born knowing how to read a tape measure. It’s not true.”
And in a world of sharp saws, chopping blades and razor-sharp spinning devices edged with metallic teeth, he worries. “I am concerned about safety,” he notes. “I’m always concerned about employees losing a finger or getting hurt.” Bay Wood works with UA SafeState, a confidential safety and health consulting service, to look for ways to improve its safety program. Wilson adds, “We also have a group of employees working as our safety committee to establish safe work practices.”
The future, products and profits weigh heavy, too. Bay Wood Products is just beginning to consider the possibility of a self-owned saw mill, allowing the company to produce some of the raw materials in house. “We will always have to outsource much of our raw materials,” he adds, “But this is an idea we are pursuing.”
In the meantime, Wilson pursues his primary focus: building relationships with customers, employees and the community. “Yeah, I love this job,” he grins. “I love the people, and I love the business, that’s why I stay — that and I have a big bank note,” he laughs.
He also has outreach programs both professionally and personally. Professionally he is working on the board of directors of the National Wood and Container Pallet Association for members to become involved politically, to let elected leaders know what this industry does and the challenges faced.
On the community level, Bay Wood Products has partnered with and offered financial support to Women’s Care Medical Center, a Baldwin County nonprofit treating local women in need.
And after all the success, innovations and a 20-year anniversary of prosperity in Baldwin County, Jimmy Wilson, president, founder and relationship builder of Bay Wood Products, still takes it all in stride and smiles, “Anyone can build a pallet.”
It’s building a pallet business that takes his unique combination of skills.
Emmett Burnett and Matt Coughlin are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma and Coughlin in Pensacola.