Moving Mount Forklift: A Daunting and Daily Team Exercise

Arranging donated kitchen cabinets, one of the Forklift's top-selling items, is like stacking adult building blocks for Doug Utterback.

Arranging donated kitchen cabinets, one of the Forklift’s top-selling items, is like stacking adult building blocks for Doug Utterback.

By Elizabeth McGowan

From the soles of his scuffed steel-toed boots to the frayed bill of his baseball cap, every lanky inch of Doug Utterback is a study in perpetual motion.

One minute he’s wrangling mismatched bundles of pine trim. Next he’s hoisting an oak cabinet over his shoulder. Then he’s positioning sheets of drywall on a cart. Seconds later he’s shooting a stream of orange stickers from the ever-ready pricing gun poised at his hip. All of this while answering a steady rat-a-tat-tat of queries from curious co-workers and customers.

If the Forklift were a restaurant, he would be the model-of-efficiency waiter who could flawlessly recite the daily specials, including garnishes, keep the water glasses filled, tolerate fidgety children with aplomb, and still deliver the soup piping hot.

Hectic is an understatement when describing Utterback’s daily schedule. But as Community Forklift’s pricing coordinator for building materials, he has to maintain that staccato pace to prevent the entire staff from being buried beneath the mountains of donations that are the nonprofit’s bread and butter.

A pricing gun is just one vital tool of the trade for Doug Utterback.

A pricing gun is just one vital tool of the trade.

“Even with 40,000 square feet, we run out of space in our warehouse quickly,” Utterback notes.

And here’s why. His calculations show that in August alone, Forklift teams wrangled at least 5,500 surplus and salvage items – everything from boxes of nails to refrigerators – out on the sales floor. That adds up to a conservative estimate of 66,000 items annually. Just to drill down a bit, in the 10-month period ending in June, the Forklift received 3,906 doors, 874 appliances, and 192 kitchen cabinet sets.

Where does it all come from? First, the Forklift sends one, two or sometimes three box trucks out on weekdays to pick up donations from residences and businesses. And secondly, donors drop off an enormous array of materials at the Forklift on weekdays and weekends.

Doug Utterback unloads roofing slate from a truck at the Forklift's Bay 3.

Doug unloads roofing slate from a truck at the Forklift’s Bay 3.

“Some donations are as simple as somebody handing you a ceiling fan,” Utterback says. “And others are a 24-foot box truck packed to the gills with cabinets.”

Understandably, he bristles when the occasional provocateur tweaks him by asking why anything at the Forklift is priced at all. After all, questioners reason, if everything is donated, why aren’t Utterback and his colleagues just giving it all away?

“I don’t think some people are aware how time- and labor-intensive all of this is,” he says about unloading and processing all of those goods. “It’s a lot of handling. We do an enormous amount of sorting so we can figure out what will be usable for our customers and what won’t be.”

The Forklift has a team of seven employees dedicated to processing and pricing all of the building materials that arrive at Bay 3 or via Forklift trucks. Three to four of them are on duty on any given day. Once unloaded, items have to be examined, cleaned and categorized. Doors and windows have to be measured and marked; windows are matched with their screens; door hardware is removed; and light fixtures, power tools and most appliances are tested.

In August alone, Forklift teams unloaded, cleaned, sorted and priced at least 5,500 surplus and salvage items donated to the nonprofit. Here, Doug Utterback wrangles a water heater and a cart of slate dropped off at Bay 3.

In August alone, Forklift teams unloaded, cleaned, sorted and priced at least 5,500 surplus and salvage items donated to the nonprofit. Here, Doug wrangles a water heater and a cart of slate dropped off at Bay 3.

Prices are anything but arbitrary. Utterback relies on a computer and his own wealth of experience and knowledge to execute his due diligence before affixing an orange price tag to any item. The Forklift rule of thumb is that surplus building materials are priced 40 to 60 percent below retail, while salvage supplies are priced 50 to 75 percent below retail.

“Everything donated is very meticulously researched,” he says. “A lot of thought has been put into the price we put on each and every item we put out on the floor.”

The Forklift prides itself on being fair and reasonable with its pricing of standard building materials, Utterback says, so everybody can experience the benefits of reuse firsthand.

If a Forklift Fan feels a pricing mistake has been made, Doug takes the complaint seriously.  He encourages the customer to fill out a pricing review form, so that the item can be re-examined by his team, and their questions can be answered.

In addition, the Forklift’s weekly and monthly sales mean that items are often discounted even further.  “We’re here to put items that people are getting rid of back in the hands of people who need them,” he says, while wheeling a cart of roof slate out of Bay 3. “We’re not here to make a ton of money and we’re not here for the glitz and the glamour.”

Utterback, a Cheverly native and an Eleanor Roosevelt High School graduate, has grown up with the Forklift because he joined the then-tiny staff in its infancy almost eight years ago as a general laborer.

“It’s nice to be invested in the community I grew up in and have a job that’s interesting and demanding,” he says, adding that he much prefers a forklift seat to a desk chair. “And what I like is that every single person here is 100 percent dedicated to our mission.”

Doug Utterback, the Forklift's pricing coordinator for building materials, helps customer Amiri Rokay measure a length of fence.

Doug helps customer Amiri Rokay measure a length of fence.

That help-others-by-keeping-it-out-of-the-landfill ethic dovetails with Utterback’s personal principles. Wasting time, energy, money and other assets makes him crazy. Never mind the strain that such recklessness puts on the planet.

“Our resources are dwindling and what so many people don’t realize is that if we keep throwing things away, eventually we’re going to run out,” he explains. “We live in a society where people think bright and shiny is better than old and weathered. But in most cases, what’s old and weathered is likely going to last 100 years longer.”

Utterback emphasizes that what’s comfortable and comforting about the Forklift is that the people are just like family. And he isn’t just spouting clichés. Two years ago, he met his life partner, Aderyn Bright, on the job. She’s the Forklift’s events coordinator. The two of them are now immersed in parenthood because their baby daughter, Annwyn, was born in early October.

“I work with some of the best people on Earth,” he says. “Community Forklift is a place where anyone from any walk of life can be a part of something positive.”