Down East 2013 ©
Andy Shorey knows paper. He should. He’s been learning for thirty-one years, working his way up from fifth hand to machine tender in charge of a crew of nine at the NewPage Mill in Rumford. So when an alarm goes off on the Number 15, he’s on it. Loose-limbed and rangy — he was a starter on the Rumford High School basketball team that won the 1976 New England championship — Shorey lopes onto the steamy, wet-cardboard-smelling manufacturing floor. He locates a jam midway down the machine. Under his direction, the roll unfurls in a wrinkled mass.
No sooner is the Number 15 back up than another alarm sounds. Two paper breaks in a row are not common, but they’re not uncommon, either. And they’re minor compared with what Shorey faced yesterday: a loose cricket on the press, spotted during his rounds. If the cricket had fallen, it would have caused some serious lost time, maybe days. Shorey got a bunch of emails from supervisors thanking him for preventing the mishap. But even an equipment failure pales against what happened last year, when months of rolling downtime — temporary shutdowns of one machine or another during which workers go unpaid — hit the Number 15 hard. Shorey lost weeks of work.
Breaks, downtimes, strikes, changes in ownership — Shorey remains unfazed. In addition to his own time here, his father worked forty-four years at the mill, as now do his cousins and most of his friends. To Shorey’s mind, Rumford is and always will be paper. “I can’t even imagine the town without it,” he says. “I think everything’s going to be all right. I really do.”
He has reason to be optimistic. Things at NewPage have significantly improved in the past year. As the economy edges toward recovery, so has demand for coated paper. The rolling downtimes stopped in February, and a hundred workers who’d been laid off were offered back their jobs — bringing the total number of employees to nine hundred, up from an all-time low in recent decades. According to the mill’s communications director Janet Hall, all three machines are up. “We’re running full, and projections look good,” she says.
In spite of gloomy headlines — closures in Millinocket and at the Wausau mill in Jay, layoffs and bankruptcies elsewhere — the Maine pulp and paper industry is undergoing a quiet but generalized revitalization. Updating and specialization have helped. Several mills, including Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan and Jay’s Verso, have rebuilt or added machines, and Lincoln Paper and Tissue recently installed a $36-million machine to ensure its position as the nation’s top producer of deep-dyed tissue.
Innovation has been important: Sappi reconfigured its Westbrook mill around release paper, which imprints patterns onto objects such as handbags and soccer balls. Several companies are exploring wood products as energy alternatives to oil. Old Town Fuel & Fiber is making bio-butanol, which can fuel jets, and Madison Paper Industries is adding a plant that produces steam from bark and sawdust — both byproducts of the pulping process.
Collaboration has been even more crucial. In a shift from the polemics that prevailed for decades — labor versus management, or the mills themselves in opposition to regulators and each other — the players in several instances have joined forces. In October the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed to impose tariffs on Chinese and Indonesian coated paper imports, largely as a result of a petition filed by NewPage, Sappi, the U.S. Steel Workers union (which represents mill workers), and a Wisconsin papermaker. Senator Olympia Snowe called the ruling that seeks to counter Asian governmental subsidies and paper priced artificially low “a slam-dunk decision that undergirds the position of the industry.”
The industry overall does differ from the old; it’s leaner — partially as the result of widespread layoffs in recent decades — more mechanized and more specialized. But it’s making money and remains a major employer, providing 24 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the state, according to the Maine Pulp & Paper Association (MPPA). It also pays the highest wages — an average of more than a thousand dollars per week — and accounts for direct and indirect wages of $1.7 billion annually.
“A lot of the mills have been improving their positions. Things are better than they’ve been in a while,” says John Williams, MPPA’s president. “The industry isn’t disappearing, it’s just changing.”
On a recent morning at Sappi in Westbrook, change takes the form of #83 Bling.
In the esoteric world of ultracast release paper, Bling represents progress. It’s a geometric pattern, and geometrics tend to froth the coating that’s applied to the paper onto which the patterns are molded. But for Bling, at least, the problem has been solved. Release paper bearing the pattern can now be used in the manufacture of fabrics, shoes, and handbags. Ever so carefully, technicians are cleaning the six-foot engraved roll onto which the pattern is etched — a single fingerprint can ruin an entire batch of paper. In another area of the manufacturing floor, a team oversees production of leather-like Satin Denver. Inside a curing chamber, liquid-coated paper is wrapped around the textured roll, after which an electron beam solidifies the coating.
In 1994, Sappi Westbrook shifted to the manufacture of release paper only. “If we’d stayed with printing and publishing, we never would have made it,” says mill manager Donna Cassese.
Not making it is anathema to Cassese, who herself represents change. The first woman to manage the Westbrook mill, Cassese grew up in the Bronx and, as a forestry major at the University of Maine, was the first in her family to attend college. A self-described “mill rat,” she’s more than capable of giving a slick Power Point presentation — replete with a show-and-tell of products that use Sappi paper (a soccer ball, Nike cleats, an automobile dashboard, a thousand-dollar Gucci jacket) — but the production floor is where she really comes alive. There, in steel-toed shoes and safety glasses, she zeroes in on gauges and machinery, greets every employee by name.
“Donna is sincere and caring and smart,” says operations manager Mike Standel. He pauses. “She’s also driven to see this mill succeed.” Indeed, during the week, Cassese lives onsite, a couple hundred yards from the mill’s boiler. Asked about hobbies, she struggles: “Hobbies?. . . Um, I work a lot.”
Cassese took over as manager of the Westbrook mill two years ago. Her single-mindedness has paid off. For Sappi’s 2009 fiscal year, sales have increased by 30 percent. The company, which also has a mill in Skowhegan, currently accounts for half the state’s exports to Brazil, and more than a quarter of its exports to China.
Some Maine mills have approached change from both angles: enhancing the efficiency of traditional processes while repurposing existing machines to make new products. Verso Paper’s Bucksport mill, for instance, is completing an eighteen-month retooling of its eighty-year-old B1 machine. According to mill manager Mike Haws, the machine can now produce lightweight FDA food-grade and packaging papers. “It’s been successful for us,” says Haws of the new niche.
Maine state economist Michael LeVert sees potential in Maine paper as a whole: “If the industry keeps investing in new products and equipment, and if public-private partnerships can help keep forests available for timber harvesting . . . the industry could play an important role in strengthening rural economies.”
It’s clear, in any case, that Maine paper isn’t going the way of shoes and textiles anytime soon.
Papermaking in Maine began in the 1730s, with the opening of a mill on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook — the same facility now run by Sappi. Access to wood was then unimportant because the process used rags as raw material. When Samuel Dennis Warren bought the Westbrook mill in 1854, discarded clothes were still being beaten to a pulp and poured into molds. In 1875, the mill began blending wood pulp with its rags to make paper. Within five years the S.D. Warren Company was the largest papermaker in the world.
During the 1880s mills were built in Old Town, Jay, and Otis. In 1889, then-President Grover Cleveland led a team of investors to bring a new sulfite pulping technology to Maine. Mills began springing up across the state.
By 1895 Maine was producing a thousand tons of pulp and five hundred tons of paper daily. After three major mills opened in the early 1900s — Millinocket, Rumford, and Baileyville — Maine became the third-largest maker of paper in the nation. As existing mills added machines, Maine surpassed Massachusetts to become second only to New York. Following the 1937 introduction of the Kraft technique, which meant that the state’s abundance of softwood trees could be pulped, Maine overtook New York. It remained the nation’s leading papermaker for three decades.
The downward shift began in the 1960s. Much of the U.S. brown paper production moved to southern states, where pine was plentiful, and many mills came online in the Pacific Northwest. Competition grew stiffer. Wisconsin overtook Maine.
The decline continued through the eighties and nineties. As Europe, Latin America, and Asia became ever more competitive, and demand for traditional products such as newsprint dropped, it became clear that cost-cutting measures might make a company more efficient but they would not ensure survival. A mill could grow only so lean before it disappeared altogether. There were lay-offs and more lay-offs, bankruptcies, and finally shutdowns at many sites. The economic climate in Maine didn’t help matters. Many corporations had come to see the state as less than business-friendly. Tax laws were stringent relative to other states, and to address environmental degradation Maine had implemented standards that exceeded those of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. On top of that were often-uneasy relations between management and labor.
The story of the industry in the twenty-first century in many ways is one of reinvention and collaboration. Although some mills that focused on streamlining and updating traditional processes and products have remained profitable, the most notable successes have come from outside-the-box innovations and innovators.
Financier Lynn Tilton, for instance, is looking at trees as an alternative to oil. Her company, Patriarch Partners, purchased the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill in Old Town two years ago because something about it “set my imagination to work,” says Tilton. It helped that a company that had briefly held the mill before filing for bankruptcy had partnered with the Forest Bioproducts Research Initiative at the University of Maine to obtain a $30 million grant. Tilton saw the old mill as an “ideal fit” with other Patriarch holdings, which include an armored vehicle maker and a helicopter company. Old Town Fuel & Fiber could be re-tooled, she thought, to turn wood into bio-butanol, which could power her vehicles. Looking forward, she saw an opportunity for the mill to become a major player in alternative energy.
Even so, when Tilton took over, she knew that it would take years to perfect the technique, which turns wood chips into fuel by extracting and fermenting sugars. In the meantime, the mill would need to keep making pulp to keep itself afloat, and pulp prices were dropping. Tilton decided to go for it. She set up talks with employees and union leaders, assuring them of her support but also giving them detailed (and sobering) information about the costs of wood, chemicals, fuel, and labor. Patriarch would infuse the company with $40 million, she said.
What would they do? The workers agreed to a 20 percent wage reduction in March 2009, which lasted six months until business began to improve.
The mill is currently piloting the butanol process on a small-scale basis. It also continues to make pulp, but it’s the prospect of full-scale bio-fuel production that has captured the imagination of many. “The Old Town mill occupies the leading position in the world for extracting sugar from wood chips,” says bioproducts institute director Hemant Pendse. If Old Town creates the model, Pendse says, then other pulp mills around the nation could adopt the process, creating jobs and providing significant amounts of alternative fuel.
Meanwhile, the collaboration among the various parties made an impression around the table. As Tilton puts it: “The divide between government and business, wealth and worker, and partisan politics was powerfully overshadowed by a common goal. People standing shoulder to shoulder, moving in the same direction, is the greatest force of nature.”
Patriarch is not alone in looking to forge alliances. Madison Paper Industries recently entered into a deal to locate a biomass thermal plant at its mill site. In a synergistic relationship, bark and sawdust left over from the mill’s operations will fuel the plant, owned and operated by Recast Energy, and the steam generated by the plant will be used in mill processes. As a result, the mill’s need for 9 million gallons of fuel oil annually — which translates into four oil tanker trucks trundling onto the site every day — will be halved. An added benefit is a forty thousand-ton annual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Innovations have occurred in funding and management strategies as well. When Keith Van Scotter and John Wissmann purchased Lincoln Paper and Tissue for $24 million in 2004, they took on a mill that in Van Scotter’s view had been shuttered because former owner Eastern Pulp & Paper was “incapable or unwilling of making the necessary changes,” to remain competitive. Within months of taking over, Van Scotter was courting potential investors, eventually securing $35 million from a California firm.
“Getting additional capital helped us survive the body blows the mill had already sustained and allowed us to start down our growth strategy,” says Van Scotter, who also managed to convince former creditors to invest monies in hopes of recouping what they’d lost in the bankruptcy. In addition, in conjunction with reinstating two-thirds of the workforce, the company negotiated new labor agreements that gave employees more latitude to pitch in throughout the manufacturing process, thereby enhancing efficiencies. The $35-million investment wound up going toward a new paper machine that doubled the mill’s tissue-making capacity and added forty jobs.
The moves have done much to secure Lincoln Paper and Tissue’s position as the nation’s top producer of deep-dyed napkins and table covers, which are sold to party goods purveyors, airlines, and food service companies around the world. “We had a strategic five-year growth plan that we’ve now achieved,” Van Scotter says. Most important now, he says, is remaining vigilant — keeping an eye on how the company can branch out from its specialized niche and on potential competitors. Especially on competitors. It’s like this, he says: “You’re out in the woods with someone, and you come up on a bear. You don’t have to out-run the bear, but you have to outrun the other person.” He pauses. “If you’re not improving, you’re doing worse than standing still. You’re going backwards.”
Taken together, the industry-wide innovations and collaborations seem to be working. Maine remains the second-largest papermaker in the nation, and while the demand for paper as a whole has dropped, the state is still generating more paper products than ever before. Presently, eleven mills throughout the state employ more than seven thousand people. The industry indirectly supports tens of thousands of other Maine jobs, including logging and trucking. And although Asian paper is now a dominant presence, many Asian nations lack trees. “Something we have is the forest resource,” says Williams, MPPA’s president — some 18 million acres covering 90 percent of the state. Indeed, the state’s slow-growing hardwoods and spruce-fir forests produce a fiber that when converted to pulp makes high-quality glossy paper — “the best in the world,” according to Williams.
Threats remain. Electronic media will keep taking bites from traditional paper, and international competition will continue to be stiff. Individual mills face their own challenges, too. Rumford has yet to diversify its product line, Old Town Fuel & Fiber is still waiting to see those bio-fueled helicopters lift off, and Madison Paper Industries is struggling against record-high pulp prices. In Westbrook, the 250-acre Sappi mill is far more expansive than it needs to be. Small trucks, called tuggers, have to haul rolls of paper — produced on the century-old Number 9 machine — a quarter-mile through labyrinthine tunnels to the warehouse. Only a fraction of the mill’s facilities are presently in use.
Still, in the Sappi conference room on a recent afternoon, the talk is all about new products and the future. “Mud splat and Spiro are big right now,” says Cassese, referring to the season’s newest release paper patterns.
The sales manager nods in confirmation. He spends much of his time traveling, often abroad, to casters who manufacture products and — with increasing frequency — directly to the designers at a footwear or clothing company. The idea, according to Cassese, is to say, “Hey you creative, artsy people, don’t be satisfied with what’s on the market. We can do something uniquely for you.” In April, Cassese and members of the sales team flew to Brazil for a fashion trade show. They came home with a lot of new ideas. “It’s kind of amazing to think that a jacket displayed on Fifth Avenue is made [with a pattern that originates] right here in Westbrook, Maine,” says Cassese.
As they speak, there’s a rumble in a distant part of the mill: a tugger, leaving the manufacturing floor with another load of paper, fresh off the Number 9.