A year ago, Kimberly-Clark’s Lakeview Mill sat empty. What a difference a year makes.
Today, a portion of the Town of Menasha facility is home to Prolamina Neenah, a flexible packaging company that is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The start-up, which began operations last August, employs about 80 people and has plans to grow even more.
Prolamina was founded by packaging executive veteran Harold Bevis two years ago. Initially, he bought two plants and thought about building a new facility. Instead, he decided the former K-C mill, with its close access to U.S. 41 and a rail line was a better fit. The region’s skilled workforce was another deciding factor.
Prolamina currently has two lines up and running – one it started from scratch and a second that it purchased last summer from Packaging Dynamics in Kaukauna. Looking ahead, the company hopes to have about 150 employees at its plant by next year. The goal is to create a plant that can engineer flexible packaging solutions, design high-definition graphics, manufacture laminates, print, laser score and convert flexible packaging solutions for the food and medical industries.
Prolamina’s addition is just another example of how vital the printing, packaging and paper industries are to the region’s economy, says Jeff Landin, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council. While he calls the market for the state’s printers “challenging,” Landin is also optimistic about the future.
“We are still seeing fierce competition from the overseas market when it comes to paper and that puts a lot of pressure on the industry,” he says. “The mills are competing hard against each other for market share.”
And while the economy is growing, it’s still not easy to be a papermaker, Landin says. “Many papermakers have gone through tough times the past 10 to 15 years, but that pain has positioned the industry to grow as we come out of the downturn.”
One benefit for many of the region’s printers is that most of the paper they make is actually converted into tissue – whether it’s toilet paper, wet wipes or facial tissue. Susan Stansbury, executive director at Converting Influence, which promotes a group of about 130 manufacturers and supplier members, says converting – which is basically what happens to the paper after it comes off the rolls – remains a strong and vital industry.
“Converting is a strong part of Wisconsin’s manufacturing industry and in Northeast Wisconsin, it’s even more so,” Stansbury says. “Converters add value above the mill. It’s an exciting area since the paper industry has been flat.”
Firms involved in converting, such as Coating Excellence International in Wrightstown and Green Bay Packaging, are more flexible and can easily adapt to changes in the market, Stansbury says.
Wipes is one product seeing a lot of growth with 10 firms from Milwaukee to Green Bay involved in their manufacturing.
“One of the things setting us apart is that we have the entire supply chain for the industry right here in the state. We can go from the forest to the mill to the converter and then we have the packaging companies right here that make the packaging that these products get put in to,” she says.
Wisconsin Film and Bag in Shawano is one of those packagers finding success.
The manufacturer has seen plenty of growth in recent years and has another expansion project under way.
The company received approval earlier this year from the City of Shawano to add 11,000 square feet to its manufacturing facility. Wisconsin Film and Bag creates a range of products such as large polyethylene pallet covers, plain polyethylene film and bags for shrinking products and layflat bags for food and industrial applications.
Jim Feeney, president of Wisconsin Film and Bag, says the expansion has been in the works for two years. The company decided to expand its Shawano facility in lieu of an acquisition or building a satellite location in another state.
When the addition is complete, another 24 to 28 employees could be added, bringing the company’s total employee count to more than 150. The expansion also means the company will be able to add five extruders that will run continuously.