Axial's Growth 100 : Howe Wallace

Howe Wallace

CEO, PalletOne

A Platform for Success

Howe Q. Wallace did not want to become the CEO of Bartow, FL-based PalletOne. A CEO position was not a “logical next step” for someone who worked for 22 years in human resources, he says, even if those 22 years were spent in the pallet industry.

But when PalletOne was formed following a 2001 leveraged buyout from a larger institution, the investors in the wooden pallet making company wouldn’t take “no” for an answer: “They asked me to stay on as CEO of the company,” Howe says, “and despite my initial resistance, I would say, in hindsight, that I was the right person for the job.”

That’s because in Howe’s view, most of the issues that hold businesses back and prevent companies from flourishing have to do with their personnel. Howe brought with him to the executive office 22 years-worth of experience in ironing out personnel problems of all kinds — problems, he says, that can only be solved through “courageous communication.”

“No matter the trepidation people may have, if they discuss even the most uncomfortable issues with integrity and with concern for one another, they can always move their organization to a better place,” Wallace says. “I learned this early on in my career and was always willing to pick it up, especially when handling difficult organizational situations.”

Open Communication Even in Tough Times

For PalletOne, frank and open communication have been paramount in helping the company successfully navigate through tough economic times.

“After the 2008 crisis, success was all about survival,” Howe says. “We were highly leveraged and it was a real challenge, but we found a way to navigate through by being open and transparent and talking about surviving the tough times. We’re a low margin business, we don’t have a lot of room to waste and I have to be able to trust every single person to hold up their end of the deal, so it’s very important to build up trust and commitment.”

Open communication on a host of important issues enabled PalletOne to keep tabs on its expenses and to stay the course, and from a low of $180 million during the toughest years of the financial crisis, the company will close 2015 with $300 million in sales. That output is projected to rise to $375 million in 2016, Howe says.

Blogger CEO

Every employee of PalletOne has Howe’s cell phone number and can reach him at any time if they need him. This flat structure also helps to foster open communication and create a more productive business environment.

Howe has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Florida and a master’s degree from the College of Education at Michigan State University, and he parlays his love of reading and writing into a blog that he shares with PalletOne employees entitled “Daily with HQ.”

It isn’t easy to post everyday, he admits, but “once you make a commitment to something, you’re always on the lookout for things to write about.” More importantly, he believes that communicating with his staff on a daily basis helps to reinforce the importance of communication across the company and make it an integral part of PalletOne’s culture.

Howe is a big sports fan and reads a lot about coaches and how they approach their craft, seeking to draw analogies with corporate leadership. He blogs about employee safety, respect, leadership, and education, and finds frequent inspiration in The Bible. His employees often share his posts on Facebook and other social media channels.

Global Forces, Domestic Concerns

With over 40 years in the industry, PalletOne is focused on continually improving its ability to produce wooden pallets at the lowest possible cost. The company has the largest pallet inventory and greatest pallet assembly capacity in the country, processing over 200 million board feet annually at 17 locations across the country, each of which Howe visits at least once a year to meet the staff and conduct employee training.

PalletOne also recycles wooden pallets and has a treated wood business, which is a fast-growing area. 

Global dynamics can affect the pallet industry, but PalletOne’s business is largely domestic and therefore more impacted by domestic issues. The main issue on Howe’s list is immigration, for which there is as yet no clear-cut reform agenda or legislation.

“For years and years our industry relied on immigrant populations, especially those who could walk across the border,” Howe says, “and in the last years, immigration laws that were supposed to be in place but had not been enforced since [Ronald] Reagan were suddenly enforced.”

Not wanting any legal hassles, PalletOne audited its staff itself, “and we lost a lot of great people,” Howe says. “We had to go through and rebuild our employee workforce and it was very heartbreaking to feel that we as a country had not served those people well.”

That’s why to the extent that they can, PalletOne and Howe make sure that all employees are cared for. The company gives a chance to those who need it, who may not have had the best education or opportunities, or who need a fresh start in life, Howe says, and it hires from prisons and other places. 
“We undertake to make our employees learn how to be effective contributors,” he says.