Charlie Schaefer thinks the warehousing business is misunderstood.
"We aren't just a big building," Schaefer, the owner of United Warehouse Co., said. "We do a lot of different things."
In fact, the term logistics has come into vogue in recent decades to describe the managing of inventory for retailers and manufacturers by warehouses.
That said, United Warehouse does have a big building — 420,000 square feet, almost a third bigger than Intrust Bank Arena — which makes it one of the largest public warehouse facilities in the Wichita area.
United Warehouse got its start in 1915, when relatives of Schaefer's who were western Kansas farmers were looking for an investment opportunity. Schaefer's father took over in the 1960s, and Schaefer bought it from him in 1978. Two sons, a stepson and a nephew work with him in the company today.
United Warehouse operated out of several locations in downtown Wichita before building a 200,000-square-foot building on East 45th Street North a decade ago. Two expansions brought that facility to its present size. The company built an even larger warehouse, 700,000 square feet, in Tulsa, although it remains based here.
Most of United's business falls into one of two categories — storing finished consumer goods, and supporting manufacturers by storing materials that will go into products. Schaefer also owns a transportation company, UWC Transportation, which allows him to offer shipping services.
On a tour of the warehouse by golf cart last week, Schaefer and Jim Andrews, United Warehouse's business development manager, showed off some of each.
Stacked nearly as high as the 30-foot-high ceilings in one section were hundreds of thousands of empty soft drink cans, waiting to be shipped to a local bottling plant. The cans represent an optimum use of warehouse space, Schaefer noted. Not so for bags of ice melt ready for shipment to retailers, which because of their weight can only be stacked about head high.
Plastic resin pellets, which are melted down and used by area manufacturers of plastic goods, are an important part of the business. Along the back of the warehouse, where a rail siding runs, sits a machine that sucks the pellets out of railcars and deposits them in boxes or, for bigger orders, directly into trucks for hauling.
Other sections of the warehouse held steel and aluminum tubing, cappuccino mixes, twine, energy drinks and more. Shingles, lumber and components used in the wind turbine business were stacked outside on United's 20-acre fenced plot.
With so much valuable property stored there, it's no surprise that United is heavily insured, watched by a battery of security cameras and protected by a high-volume sprinkler system.
"It would pump the water tower in Park City dry in a very short time," Schaefer said of the latter.
Technology plays a big role these days. Before forklift drivers pick up a pallet, they use a hand-held device to let United's computer system know exactly where each load is going. Customers can use United's system to keep track of their inventory; when an order for their product comes in, or they need more of something for manufacturing, they in turn can notify United via computer to prepare the item for shipping.
Another industry trend is offering "value-added services," such as packaging and reconfiguring goods before shipping. An example of the latter might be taking four-packs of paper towels and rewrapping them in packs of a dozen for club stores.
"We'll do just about anything the customer wants," Andrews said.
The warehousing business gives Schaefer a good look into the state of manufacturing in general, he said. Right now, it's way down. He's had to lay off part of his work force, employees he describes as "really first-rate."
When business will rebound, Schaefer can't say. But when it does, United will be ready to handle it.
"It's not real pretty, but a lot of industry goes through here," he said.