By Chase Warner, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Manufacturing pallets for nearly 40 years, the Indiana-based Coomer & Sons Sawmill has grown from a small garage start-up into a commercial-sized operation producing thousands of pallets daily. The family-owned company has worked with a variety of manufacturing equipment over the years, but operates today with three Wood-Mizer WM4000 industrial thin-kerf headrigs and two multi-head horizontal resaws for the primary and secondary breakdown of logs into pallet components. Throughout their history, Coomer & Sons has remained successful through economic hardships and unfortunate tragedy by developing a solid business model, taking care of their employees, and providing excellent service.
Established by Charles Coomer in 1978, Coomer & Sons Sawmill is a family-owned and operated business that began in a Frankfort, Indiana garage with four employees producing approximately 75 pallets by hand each day. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Coomer & Sons grew rapidly, moving into larger buildings and installing automated manufacturing equipment to keep up with the demand for their products. During this period of growth, the company developed a close working relationship with nearby Wood-Mizer headquartered in Indianapolis just 45 miles south of Frankfort. The Coomer family has been Wood-Mizer owners for decades since running one of the company’s first multi-head resaws in the early 1990s. Coomer & Sons has also become a valued partner in testing the Indiana sawmill manufacturer’s prototype equipment and blades.
In 2007, the family business changed hands when founder Charles Coomer passed away. Charles’ son, Jeff, purchased the company and became President just before the economic hardships hit in the late 2000s. During these unfavorable business times, Coomer & Sons remained profitable by offering used pallets to businesses that were trying to save money wherever they could. “When the economy was bad, we started doing used pallets and within a year we were a full blown used pallet operation selling a million and a half [pallets] a year,” said President Jeff Coomer. “It grew so fast because everybody, during those times, wanted used instead of new pallets to save the dollars.” By diversifying their business, Coomer & Sons had developed a successful model by supplying new and used pallets to a variety of global clients shipping automotive filters, plastics, recyclables, tires, and more. When combined, the market cycles of each client’s industry provide a steady demand to avoid large gaps in production. In addition to new and used pallets, today Coomer & Sons also provides specialty heat-treated pallets for shipping internationally and supplements their pallet operation by offering byproducts from manufacturing such as mulch and firewood from log end drops.
First, logs are debarked then transported to the main building for processing. Once logs are staged, they are run through one of three WM4000 industrial headrigs for primary breakdown and fed into one conveyor leading to the green chain. Next, the cants are edged and cut to length on cut-off saws. Cants are then run through one of two multi-head resaws to break down into deck boards and runners before final assembly into pallets with an automated nailing machine. Finished pallets are either shipped out the same day or stored inside their 88,000-square-foot facility.
Primary sawyer, Troy Shimmel, has worked with Coomer & Sons for the past 15 years and says the WM4000 is simply “fun to run”. Compared to the older model Wood-Mizer sawmills, Troy says the WM4000 saws logs much faster and comments on the improved log handling functions. “I can cut bigger logs and the log turner has a dual turner on it,” said Troy. “The three backstops come up instead of two which helps keep the logs on the saw bed.” Jeff says the WM4000s are an integral part of the pallet operation and points out the computer setworks provide accuracy and efficiency during log breakdown. “The WM4000’s are a great piece of machinery,” said Jeff. “I think Wood-Mizer’s proven that you can take less material and make it a better saw, heavy doesn’t always mean better. It’s the simplicity of Wood-Mizer’s equipment that is just really nice.”
Coomer & Sons fits their sawmill equipment with Wood-Mizer blades and have their own blade sharpening and tooth setting equipment. Jeff says that by having their own blade maintenance equipment in house, they are saving money on shipping and are able to sharpen blades up to four times before needing a new blade. “When I get a blade from Wood-Mizer I can saw a lot of material with it, even after it’s been resharpened two or three times,” said Troy. Coomer & Sons was one of the testing sites for Wood-Mizer’s new Vortex dust-removal blade. The newly engineered blade profile is designed to remove dust while sawing in order to minimize or eliminate the need for sawdust removal after the lumber is processed. “The Vortex blade was getting 98 to 99% of the dust off, so it was impressive on how much dust it took off [compared to] a typical saw blade,” said Jeff. “We deal a lot with a filter company where if the dust is on the pallet, the dust gets in the filters and then it’s a major issue. Our goal is to get 100% of the dust off, if you don’t get the dust off, you’re not going to have the customer.” Currently, Coomer & Sons takes multiple measures to ensure dust-free pallets for their clients including using a dedusting machine and also brushing off the final product when assembled. The groundbreaking Vortex blade may lessen the labor and time associated with sawdust removal from the final product.
In addition to Jeff operating as President for the past decade, multiple members of the Coomer family occupy key roles within the company including Jeff’s wife Kathleen and son Jeffrey. There’s a lot of hats you have to wear,” said Jeff. “You have to be the grandfather, the dad, the employer and it’s really tough sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Jeff’s brothers, Chris and Dennis, along with nephews Seth and Andrew also hold positions in the operation. “In business you need to have key personnel,” said Jeff. “My lifelong friend Jeff Stewart oversees all the operations, Ed Cox manages the used pallet facility, and Richard Miller is the maintenance supervisor over all facilities. Without these people, business wouldn’t be so smooth.”
When it comes to business advice, Jeff says it’s the little things that employees remember and appreciate. Every year, the company hosts a Christmas in July and provides turkeys and ham to their employees for Thanksgiving dinner. They have purchased hundreds of bicycles, tools, televisions, and more as employee giveaways throughout the years. “Take care of your employees first and they’ll take care of you,” said Jeff. “Give them a pat on the back and tell them good job. I think that makes more of a difference than anything else.” For the future, Jeff sees the company remaining steady at least in the next few years. “Sometimes when you get bigger you get more headaches and less profit in the end,” said Jeff. “If you can stay a little bit smaller and find a nice medium niche, you’ll continue to flourish.”
With a proven ability to adapt with the times, Coomer & Sons is positioned for continued success, wherever the road leads. “In the pallet business, anybody can sell and build pallets, I think you’re selling service,” said Jeff. “As long as you’re on time and you do a great job in the service aspect of it, you’re going to keep customers. Our service is outstanding and you can’t replace that.”
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