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Blue Collar Discipleship

Pallet industry leaders are creating life change through uncommon caring cultures.

Blue Collar Discipleship

Pallet industry leaders are creating life change through uncommon caring cultures.

If you’re driving south on Highway 43 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, just past North Alabama State Fair Park, you can’t miss the gigantic lot with wooden pallets stacked one on top of the other. You’ll see a few industrial buildings looming in the back, a large McVantage Packaging sign puncturing the horizon, and—a motel?

Yes, a motel. For years, the Four Way Inn sat smack-dab in the middle of the 50-acre McVantage Packaging property. An aging, one-story complex with a green roof, the motel spent the mid-2010s slipping down the spectrum of decency, launching as an inexpensive travel lodging option but declining due to increasingly dangerous renters.

A stream of disreputable motel patrons trickled in, and not coincidentally items began to disappear from McVantage. President of McVantage Eddie Daniel recalls employees finding used hypodermic needles on the property as the neighboring motel began to decline. The McKinney family, who founded McVantage in the 1950s as a small sawmill, grew concerned. But the McKinneys didn’t want to simply clean up the area or petition for a safer motel. Instead, they purchased the motel outright, and, building on years of experience with McVantage’s prison work-release program, they converted the building into a halfway house for recently paroled men. Thus began Journey Ministries, a nonprofit founded by the McKinneys.

Ideas take root

Daniel began talking to other manufacturers in the area, asking if they would hire men in a work-release program. Manufacturer after manufacturer said yes. The McKinneys, Daniel, and Ron Ethridge, the director of Journey Ministries and chaplain at McVantage, spent the next few years building the program.

“We [at McVantage] have had fantastic luck working with work-release centers from prisons,” Daniel said. But through their work with former inmates, McVantage leaders came to recognize work-release participants and recent parolees had two equally important ongoing needs: jobs and housing. Journey Ministries set out to meet them both.

The program provides transitional housing, employment, and courses taught by Ethridge, certified counselors, and local church leaders. The curriculum covers a wide range of life skills, from communication to financial planning, from loving others to parenting. To help develop budgeting skills, participants are asked to pay a small, weekly fee; a portion of this fee is placed in a savings account so that, upon graduation from the program, each participant has a lump sum to use in securing a home.

Daniel developed a high regard for discipline, structure, and planning as a major in the Army National Guard who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But his attention to detail hasn’t compromised his attention to people. “One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m in the people business, not the pallet business,” Daniel said. “I’m here to help our employees and make their lives better and easier so they can support our customers—all for the glory of the Lord.”

Daniel is an active member of C12, a global network of peer-advisory groups for Christian CEOs and business leaders. Together, he and his peers encourage and challenge each other to have a positive impact far beyond the bottom line. For Daniel, his focus on bridging care for the local community and his employees—from the men working with the Journey Reentry Program all the way up to his executive leadership team—has brought about visible and tangible life change. “C12 has helped me become a better leader,” Daniel said. “I believe that McVantage is starting to see the benefits of it as well. Today we’re able to better care for our employees, and our retention rate is creeping up because we’re more focused on the people.”

Birches grow

Nick Wenner, president of Pallet Service Corporation in Maple Grove, Minnesota, has demonstrated a similar outlook on leadership as he’s worked to maintain a healthy workplace culture during a season of rapid growth.

Wenner’s father purchased Pallet Service Corporation in 1992 as a small business on the verge of closing its doors. From the time Wenner was in kindergarten, he and his brother spent weekends going to the shop with his parents, pretending to file papers and pecking away on the typewriter. “We were always in and around the business,” Wenner said.

Pallet Service Corporation has seen compounded growth of over 15 percent every year as his father led the company with a strong set of priorities, many of which were unspoken. But as Wenner assumed leadership and the number of people under his responsibility grew, he realized the importance of openly sharing those values.

“The larger we grew, the harder it was to maintain control,” Wenner said. “We were starting to have growing pains. People weren’t getting along.”

Wenner and his leadership team decided on five core values they wanted to embody and promote: balance, innovation, respect, commitment, and humility (BIRCH). To prove BIRCH was more to them than a catchy slogan, they implemented a BIRCH Card system: If someone notices a coworker exemplifying one of these core values, they fill out a BIRCH Card and give it to the person, letting them know that their good work was seen and noticed. At weekly meetings, managers present the BIRCH Cards to the leadership team to highlight how their core values are being expressed at all levels of the company. At each quarterly staff meeting, a few BIRCH Cards are read aloud, and the people who filled them out are given a small gift for taking the time to notice and celebrate what is praiseworthy.

In Wenner’s words, “We want to look at people as people and place value where it’s due. We’ve started to figure out who we are and who we’re trying to become.”

Seeing the trees in the forest

Part of that becoming has manifested by offering extended care to employees through a chaplaincy program. “It’s another step we’re taking to be who we say we want to be,” Wenner said. He says when he hears, for example, that an employee has called on the chaplain when a family member passed away, he knows the program is worth it.

McVantage, too, has a corporate chaplain; Hay Creek Pallet in Pittsville, Wisconsin, has two. Hay Creek’s owner and president Tom Gardner is pleased to point out that the chaplains’ care is evident. They spend time with employees on site, inviting them to share any burdens on their heart and offering care and encouragement. “Our chaplains give people the time they need,” said Gardner, whose C12 group helped him realize that as the leader of the company, he does not have the capacity to personally provide consistent one-on-one care.

In addition, Hay Creek offers a Caring Team that helps employees meet financial needs and provides a safe place for those who may feel intimidated to share their struggles with someone in the upper echelon of the company. Gardner doesn’t want anyone to feel that he’s unapproachable, but he’s also aware that sometimes people can’t bring themselves to approach a company’s CFO or president and therefore might find a go-between helpful. The Caring Team also leads community projects, such as collecting items to assemble care packages for active duty soldiers. Last fall, they sent the packages to the battalion of an employee’s nephew. Believing in the power of collaboration and collective impact, they partnered with local organizations, churches, and an elementary school to multiply their encouragement to the battalion.

For Gardner, chaplains and the Caring Team are just two offerings helping them achieve their desired workplace culture: a place where people can feel valued and find refuge. “We’re loving our people as they are, and with whatever needs they bring to work with them. And we don’t expect our employees to come to work and leave their problems at home.”

It all goes back to what Daniel said: These leaders are not in the pallet business; they’re in the people business. The product matters. Productivity matters. But when business is hard—when cutting overtime due to a pandemic feels devastating or when positive cultural change feels impossible to implement in a growing organization—Daniel, Gardner, and Wenner remind themselves of the foundation their pallet companies stand upon: honoring the image of God in those they feel privileged to lead.

Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.