Consider the pallet. Some two billion of them are currently crisscrossing the U.S. Yet they’re overlooked, tossed aside and broken, stacked in teetering towers behind businesses and forgotten. But everything that Prime Woodcraft has become — its more than 60 company-run facilities across the U.S., its 1,000+ employees, its A-list client roster of retailers, its 40 percent annual growth, and its many products and services — began with pallets and the question: What do you do with that?
“Pallets move the world,” says Prime Woodcraft Founder and CEO Ansir Junaid. The Pakistani immigrant explains, frenetically, in the newish and tastefully decorated office of his Brunswick headquarters, how he, the youngest son of a military family, landed in Cleveland and in just a few years created a model to turn pallets into a disruptive national business.
“I’m inquisitive because I’m an immigrant,” Junaid says. “I don’t understand your system. And that, I think, is part of the story when you bring an immigrant in who’s not comfortable, who’s inquisitive and is trying to figure out how do you make a difference?”
A chance encounter with the Amish
Junaid, unable to realize his dream of being a military pilot because of an issue with his vision, left Pakistan for London, where he worked and went to school briefly, before shipping off to Cleveland to attend Cleveland State University. He had no plans, at the time, to start a business.
While at school he took an internship with Pepsi Co. in the procurement department, then a job doing the same with National Solvent Corp., which carried over post-graduation.
It was the mid-1990s and one of NSC’s customers — a national retailer — was adding distribution centers. NSC supplied product to 2,800 of this customer’s stores and was in the process of consolidating deliveries in full truckloads and working to meet the demands of the newly implemented just-in-time delivery method.
The retailer received, literally, tons of varied products, all of which were arriving on pallets to its distribution centers.
“I started walking around the back end of the distribution centers and I see all this wood. I’m an inquisitive person and I’m just trying to figure out, why is that happening?” he says. “Well, the first thing I heard is, ‘We don’t know.’”
Not knowing what to do meant stacks and stacks of pallets out back, which meant fire marshalls, concerned and ticket-ready, poking around the potential hazards. It also meant a lot of material ended up in a dumpster, material the company was paying to discard.
Fortunately, or maybe serendipitously, the what-to-do-with-the-pallets problem coincided with a chance encounter Junaid had with an Amish man.
A closed loop
One day, as Junaid was on his way home from NSC, a broken-down horse and buggy was holding up traffic. Junaid, who decided to help, learned the problem was an Amish man whose buggy broke while trying to haul a 55-gallon drum of kerosene. Their chance conversation led to an invitation to Sugarcreek.
“So I went out to see him,” Junaid says. “They were cutting trees. In a tree you have furniture lumber, then you have construction lumber and then you have pallet lumber, which they really got rid of it, just as waste. I looked at that as an opportunity.”
Junaid, connecting the dots, recognized that retailers were throwing away pallets because they weren’t considering the value of the non-inventoried items. He had the idea to create a model in which customers buy the pallets and then later sell the used pallets back to Junaid, who, via his newfound Amish connection, would either repair them and get them back out, or recycle them and turn the materials into cash or other products to be sold.
As Junaid explains it: “I’m going to come to you and I’m going to say, ‘Look, you just bought something from me that you’re paying to get rid of. I’m going to find a solution for you. I’m going to pay you for it.’
“They did not understand,” he says. “They cannot comprehend the concept. They were like, ‘What do you mean you’re going to pay us for it? Really? You’re going to pay us for something we throw in the dumpster?’”
Junaid rented a 24-foot truck and made the rounds, dropping off the pallets he sold to his customers, picking them up when the customers sold them back and leaving them with his Amish partners to be repaired or recycled.
“What we call that is a closed loop,” Junaid says.
From many to one
As Junaid made the rounds, he began to see the rest of the packaging materials — the empty boxes, the shrink wrap, the banding — creating much the same problem as pallets had. He wasn’t exactly sure how he could address it, but he knew what to do: ask questions.
“We always ask, ‘What’s your problem?’ And sometimes they don’t know. And so I go into the plant and figure that out,” he says.
Junaid went to his customers and offered them an opportunity to consolidate the many vendors supplying the many and varied shipping products down to just one: Prime Woodcraft. The company began to pitch additional services on its way to being a complete procurement department for its customers.
To that end, he added Supply-Side USA and PackagingSupplies.com to what was becoming the Prime Woodcraft cluster of companies (which would also come to include PWC international, which sells corrugated and plastic), applying much the same trash-to-cash model Prime Woodcraft used to grow.
Supply-Side, a supplier of packaging, shipping, moving and storage products, serves two verticals. One vertical is parcel, which goes to market in part through its own-brand, PackRite. The other is the self-storage market, reaching the customers of moving truck rental companies via a link on a truck rental company’s website so customers can order moving supplies, such as boxes and tape.
PackagingSupplies.com, which also addresses customers’ front-end needs, sells industrial packaging. Both companies’ offerings comprise tens of thousands of products that fill page after page of their websites’ digital real estate — hundreds of boxes of varying types, sizes, colors, shapes and uses; mailers and envelopes; packaging tape and stretch film; and even greeting cards, for some enterprising reason.
With 80 percent of its sales still coming from pallets or pallet-related services, Prime Woodcraft is working to see its business split more evenly with its other offerings, such as logistics, recycling, packing supplies, and creating novel ways to generate substantial savings for customers. For example, it has put its personnel on its customers’ sites to manage and receive products, sort and collect the packaging and recycle their pallets.
Solving future problems
Over the years, Junaid has grown his business incrementally — quickly, but incrementally — sitting with his customers and talking through their challenges to find ways to consolidate services and turn trash into cash for both his company and his customers.
Now he’s thinking out loud about his company’s future, and how to apply his model to consumers. Given that so much commerce is happening online with items shipping direct to consumers’ homes, Junaid sees his raw materials — the packaging that products are shipped in — going into dumpsters as consumer scrap.
“That is creating more issues in the landfill than any other place because we’re all throwing it away,” he says. “So we’re trying to figure that out. We want to come to your home. We are trying to disrupt the market to make sure that you don’t throw that away in your dumpster because we are about sustainability.”
Junaid says Prime Woodcraft is imagining its place, its opportunity, in the new retail landscape, and how it can disrupt the future market. The process begins with the question: How do I help my customers?
“If you have that agenda — to solve a problem for the customer — you will always have success,” he says. “Because then you’re not selfishly trying to figure out what you want to sell. That’s why we disrupted the market.”
» Generate opportunities by asking questions.
» Talk with customers to identify their issues.
» Be willing to adapt your business model to customer needs.