Quick questions with … Shawn Malark, owner of Orleans Pallet

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 October 2013 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – Shawn Malark, a Kendall native, started Orleans Pallet in Albion in 2006.

The company survived a massive blaze on Oct. 17.

Firefighters were quickly on scene and contained the fire to the large warehouse.

ALBION – Shawn Malark is a determined man, and a very thankful person. A large warehouse that he owns in Albion was engulfed in flames on Oct. 17, in one of the community’s largest fires ever.

Malark is thankful the fire didn’t spread. He has kept his company, Orleans Pallet, going and he said he will grow the operations in Albion. The company takes broken wooden pallets and rebuilds them.

Malark’s office is in a structure next to the warehouse that was spared from the fire. He pumped water from his office the day after the fire and was quickly back connecting with his customers. He sat down for an interview last Wednesday.

Q: I’m curious about the history of the company. You started this yourself?

A: I did in 2006. We moved in right here in Albion, NY, and started to refurbish the facility. We were doing a little bit each year.

Q: You worked out of more than just the big sandstone building that burned.

A: There were three buildings. The two that are remaining are the one on West Avenue with all of our recycling equipment and then the building connected to the three-story building that had the fire. We have another custom shop/bathroom-break area that was not harmed at all.

Q: The smaller sandstone building, how old is that?

A: 1901. It was the same extension of the three-story building. We had some water damage in the basement. We’ll have to fully gut that because over 3 million gallons of water drained in there from the fire. We had that completely refurbished as storage but it was completely wiped out.

Q: The big building was that mainly for storage?

A: It was. We had pallets and metal racks that housed some of our pallet components. The main heart of the business is in this building and it had very little impact. None of our machinery or fork lifts, and none of our trailers. One of the advantages of our business is the number of trailers that we own. None of that equipment was harmed. They were all backed up to the loading dock by the fire and I don’t know how they weren’t harmed. It melted all of the siding across the street at Lorenzo’s, but our trailers and the doors and seals were positioned in a way that the walls from the building protected it from the fire. We were very fortunate.

Malark is amazed his trailers full of pallets were unharmed from the fire.

Q: How many trailers do you have?

A: We had about 10 trailers out there, including one that we use for heat-treatment of pallets. Dale Brooks (from the Albion DPW) was huge in the recovery of that after the fire so that the demolition team didn’t do further damage to our property. That trailer is about $40,000 to $50,000. We removed it from the dock so that they could do their demo. That was a huge save right there.

That trailer is used in the heat treatment of pallets that will travel overseas. The trailer heats the wood up to 140 degrees. The core of that wood temperature reaches 140 degrees and it has to hold that temperature in its core zones for 30 minutes. That removes the moisture content from the wood and allows the pallet to be shipped overseas with no concern that there has been any larvae infestation.

Q: So this isn’t simply building and rebuilding pallets in this business?

A: There’s a lot going on. We run our transportation business out of her, our freight brokerage and our billing. We have three separate companies out of here. We’re trying to stay as diversified as possible. We have a lot of hard-working people here.

Orleans Pallet employees Andrew Steffen, left, and Robert Morehouse use a saw to break down some pallets that will be rebuilt with fresh pieces.

Q: How many work here?

A: In Albion we have six. One reason we were doing the demolition into the three-story building was to get that ready to receive more pallets.

When we first moved here we had 20 employees. We moved a lot of work to a second operation in Rochester. But we have some key individuals here and we are looking to really ramp up in Albion.

Q: The Rochester site is similar to Albion?

A: Similar but larger. We can handle more pallets at the warehouse there.

Q: How did you get interested in the pallet business?

A: Working at Eastman Kodak and other companies in injection molding and sheet metal manufacturing, I had a lot to do with ordering. I saw the need for pallets in shipping. Everything is on a pallet for the most part. It’s a very manual and aggressive business with the recycling, recovery and the building of the new. There is some automation in it, but a lot of it is manual and physical labor.

We have great customers. It’s a very interesting and challenging business at the same time.

About 150 firefghters battled the fire at the three-story warehouse, which was built in 1901 and was originally the Albion Cold Storage Company.

Q: The old warehouse seemed a good fit for this business. If you hadn’t come here in 2006, I bet the warehouse would have just sat there.

A: The previous owner was going to let the building fall apart. When we came here the docks were the attractive part. You could put 14 trailers to the dock at the same time. That allows us to keep the floor clean and safe. We don’t have to flood the floor with anything we don’t need. We have the option of keeping it in the trailer. It allows us to stay extremely clean. Not all pallet shops are as clean as we are.

Q: Can you talk about the fire? It’s been reported that you and your father (Rod Malark) were working and a spark from a grinder caused the blaze.

A: On Thursday the 17th I was in the office doing billing and my father was removing some pipe for me. We were trying to expand the use of the three-story building for production and storage. He was removing pipe to allow us to get further into the building with some of the demo we were doing.

He was cutting a hanger that was holding some of the pipes with a grinder, so he could get the pipes down where he could remove them. Maybe he was in there that day for 25 minutes before that happened. When he started to do the grinding, one of the sparks caught either some of the wood shavings that were in the floor as old insulation above him or it got in the wall behind him. He believes it got in the wall behind him. And then it just started to go.

He saw that he had a fire and he started to put water on it. It was not going in the right direction and he came and got me to the second-story floor with him. We got into the area with a couple of extinguishers. We put the second floor fire out. But at that point it had climbed to the third floor. It was about 8 or 9 foot wide, climbing the third story wall. It had also taken about 8 to 10 foot horizontally across the first floor below us.

It happened within minutes. By the time we got out of the second story and on to the ground I called the fire department and they said they had already received 50 phone calls. This is probably in less than 8 to 12 minutes time frame from when my father came to retrieve me out of the office. It just went quick.

The only guys who know what they stopped are the firefighters and the fire chief. If this thing had caught Empire Coating, we would have had a monstrous chemical disaster on our hands with the potential for explosions. The next building down is a grain silo with a grain elevator. That would have caused a huge problem.– Shawn Malark

Q: This is at about 3:45 p.m.?

A: I would say that, and by 4 o’clock the fire department’s people had seen the smoke going.

Q: What did you then do when you knew the fire had spread?

A: We closed doors here. The fire department was shooing us out for safety. We were trying to make any last-minute adjustments that we could to prevent the fire from coming in this building. I think closing those doors saved this building. The fire ripped across the canopy and actually hit a couple pipes. It started to come into the office. Upstairs the smoke damage is pretty bad, but it did not catch the walls.

Once we hit the ground, we talked with the investigators to let them know the condition of the building was, the structure of it and the contents. We let them know we have a 1,000-gallon propane tank in the middle of the yard that is barricaded with some concrete. But that line runs underground and fed the heat-treat trailer.

The biggest concern was the back of the building at Empire Coating. I was aware of it and the town was aware of it. That was the biggest discussion: how do we stop this thing from getting to Empire Coating. That could have been a very tragic situation for community and that business also.

The fire at Orleans Pallet quickly spread through the building and turned into an inferno, threatening the neighborhood.

Q: I wonder why it didn’t spread? That was a monstrous fire.

A: Partly the building (double walls of sandstone), but the firefighters stopped it from going into two adjacent buildings that are connected with nothing but wood. The fire chief (Rocky Sidari) was unbelievable. When he hit the scene he had so many people going in a controlled direction. He definitely had a handle on it.

Rollie Nenni, the police chief, worked together with the fire department. You never saw anybody who wasn’t in cooperation. There were hundreds of firefighters and volunteers here and it seemed to be very seamless even in a very stressful situation with all the chemicals at Empire Coating and the hazardous materials there. That thing could have gotten all of us in a very bad situation. I definitely owe those guys a humungous debt of gratitude.

Q: I was also struck by the lack of panic, especially at the command center. They seemed very focused with what they were doing.

We will improve the property, and we will definitely grow the business.– Shawn Malark

A: These guys were calm and collected. They have the correct mindset to put themselves in the right frame of mind to protect all individuals and the residents. They had everybody shut their doors and windows and stay inside. Once they were on scene, they got residents out of the area and pushed the scene back block after block.

They ran hose to the canal because they almost ran out of water. There were 3 million gallons that I know of that were put on to the fire.

Had Rocky not gotten everyone going at the same time we may not have been that lucky. The buildings definitely would not have been saved.

I was very impressed by everyone. They are volunteer people risking their lives, not only for the saving of this business, but they way they all worked together. It gives you a good outlook on why the community is still a solid entity. The key heart and soul of the community was definitely present at this fire.

Malark and firefighters worried the fire might spread to the neighboring structures, including Empire Coating and a grain facility, putting residents in danger.

Q: People might be surprised to see the business is still functioning here. You seem to have kicked it into a new gear around here.

A: I’ve tried to keep everybody calm. It’s one day at a time. It’s nothing you can conquer in a short period of time. You try not to think about any of the bad. You focus on what you can do. We’ve always been able to accomplish a lot. That’s the mode we went into as a company.

We wanted to protect our employees and protect our customer relationships. That’s the heart and soul of our business – our employees and our customers for me as the owner of this business.

Q: It seems like a lot of your product would have gone up in flames?

A: We did lose an extensive amount of product. But because we have the trailers and the other facilities, we were always able to have an inventory.

We were very fortunate, when the fire took place the majority of our stuff was in trailers. We did lose quite of a bit of pallets and components, but they were things we had duplicates and triplicates of. Not losing any of the trailers was just a blessing.

Malark is thankful two of his three buildings survived the fire thanks to the quick response from firefighters.

Q: Who would have thought with all of them backed up to the building like that.

A: And loaded with wood. They didn’t have 10 pallets on them, they had 500 to 600. Nothing burns hotter than pallet wood. It’s dry. These guys being able to jump in here and not only fight a building fire, but a pallet fire, it’s impressive.

The only guys who know what they stopped are the firefighters and the fire chief. If this thing had caught Empire Coating, we would have had a monstrous chemical disaster on our hands with the potential for explosions. The next building down is a grain silo with a grain elevator. That would have caused a huge problem.

What these guys did, without having any time to prepare for this at 4 o’clock in the afternoon when pretty much everyone is going home, it was very impressive to watch. They stayed in their positions and never jumped from anything.

They set up and got themselves safe and then everyone started to ask the right questions for anything else they needed to know.

Q: This may sound like a dumb question, but is it hard to watch the building come down and all this ruin in front of you?

A: It is hard. We had a 16,000-square-foot building that was structurally sound other than the interior floors on the second and third floor, which we wanted to move out. We had big plans for it. We were going to have a new roof on it and have an impressive interior storage building and additional manufacturing.

We’ll have to hit the drawing board again. It is devastating because we had the building. It will no longer to ever be able to used in the manner that it had been. From the historic aspect, we’ve had so many people over the years stop by and ask what it’s being used for now. They would take pictures.

It was up since 1901, and a lot of residents worked here for the different companies or they purchased things from here or stored things here over the years as the building changed hands. We’ve had a lot of people coming here to give the building one last look. It’s a building they’ve known their entire life.

Q: You will stay here in Albion?

A: Absolutely. We will clean the property up. We will improve the property, and we will definitely grow the business.