West Michigan has benefited significantly in both the short and long terms from businessmen with vision, determination, and a strong work ethic. The climate we enjoy today for commerce was built by all those who came before us. I talked to Bernie Kamps, a longtime Grand Rapids businessman who started his hauling venture as a teenager and has built it into a multi-state, multi-location full-service pallet logistics business.

How long have you been in business?

We celebrated 40 years of business last year! My 40th year – can you imagine – an 18 year old kid buys a small dump truck and launches into business after his father and two uncles sell their garbage business to Waste Management? That old truck and I had been hauling sawdust all through high school as a part-time job; we were selling animal bedding to horse stables and farmers. That part-time job, that I started as soon as I received my driver’s license at age 16, became my full-time, lifetime occupation. With only 3 hours worth of work each day, I set out to build enough work to support myself. The first year I made less than all my high school buddies, who saw steady weekly paychecks every Friday. My workload increased as I added more furniture factory supply on the wood shavings side and began to haul factories’ trash and waste to the landfills. It was there in the landfills that I saw opportunity staring me in the face, and I answered the proverbial knock on the door.

What was your business inspiration?

Meijer, Amway and many other companies were dumping their broken and good odd sized pallets into the landfill. I asked the landfill operators if I could purchase the 48x40s for $0.25-$0.50 each. I began repairing them with a hammer and nails and hand loaded them on my truck each day. In that landfill, so many years ago, a pallet career was born, and, after four decades, we are now doing business throughout the Midwest and shipping our green rental pallets throughout the eastern and southern states.

So that’s how Kamps was born?

Yes! The age of recycling was coming on strong in the mid 1970s and, due to inflation and price increases on most commodities, including wood, pallets began to cost more. A big break came through innovation when I purchased a Rogers UnNailer, enabling us to cut out broken stringers and replace them with either reconditioned or new runners. That innovation allowed me to provide better pallet returns to many large companies that my competitors were not providing. The competitors were larger than us, but they did not see the potential both in replacing stringers and reclaiming wood with the same machine, which allowed us to produce lumber at low cost. I called it “harvesting the urban forest”. This became our mantra and mode of operation.

To what do you attribute the growth of Kamps?

Innovation was the spark, and better service was the drive for Kamps to grow. We were diligent in our response time and very responsive to the needs of the customers as well as a leader in driving down our customer’s costs. Still after 40 years, you hear and see our team pushing the importance of being better than our competitors. We measure 10-12 key performance indicators every week!  We were also innovative in our approach to our employees back then, paying piece rate for all production work which helped make us extremely efficient. Our production crews produced more pallets and received more pay per day than our competitor’s employees and enjoyed many benefits, including health, dental, 401K and larger paychecks. Most pallet companies did not reward their people this well, which allowed Kamps to be set apart by keeping a steady and knowledgeable workforce, which in turn helped provide outstanding customer service at a better price. The circle is complete.

How many people does Kamps employ now?

Today a tremendous group of over 600 employees make Kamps, Inc. successful every day. Our management teams in every plant are staying innovative and lean. Our executive team is committed to leading our company to higher levels and building a company that continues to appreciate and reward our workforce while providing the best value and service for our valuable customers. After 40 years the company continues to grow and expand its reach as one of the country’s largest family owned pallet businesses.

So what is the difference 40 years later? Well the answer is this: all the work is being done by many; not by just one guy with a truck and a dream.