Strong fiber

Paper industry embraces opportunity, confronts challenges

Posted on Sep 29, 2020 :: Manufacturing
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

A year ago, few would have guessed that toilet paper and disinfecting wipes would become coveted products, but that’s just what happened as the pandemic began to unfold in the early months of 2020.

It’s not the way any company wants to come to prominence, but the state’s and region’s papermaking industry has stepped up to meet the need for those consumer products as well as desperately needed personal protective equipment for health care and other essential workers.

The New North, which makes up a large part of the “converting corridor” stretching between Green Bay and Milwaukee, has played an outsized role in producing paper products during this time of critical need, says Barb LaMue, president and CEO of New North Inc.

As the crisis began to heat up, the need for PPE became apparent, and New North worked with the state as well as the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s procurement office to mobilize the effort. About 100 companies began making PPE — many for the first time — including face shields, masks and medical gowns and caps.

“They had to re-engineer themselves relatively quickly. The majority of those companies came out of the New North region,” says LaMue, who served as the keynote speaker at the recent Converters Expo virtual conference.

One such company was NPS Corp., which caught the attention of the federal government and received a $2.75 million contract to increase production of melt-blown fiber, a critical component in producing N95 respirators and surgical masks. The company expected to hire 30 workers to meet the need for the contract.

Andy Hetzel, president and CEO of NPS, was one of three paper industry leaders who spoke as part of a roundtable discussion for the Converters Expo event. In the beginning of the pandemic, the company couldn’t make enough toilet paper and wipes, but the spill control side of its business fell off, Hetzel said. That’s when the Green Bay company decided to convert its melt-blown machines to make face masks.

“When the pandemic hit, we quickly declared a new mission statement, and that was to keep our employees safe and take the best possible care of our customers. Nothing else matters,” Hetzel said in the roundtable discussion. “Time is of the essence. Move as fast as you can on new product development. Don’t wait until you’ve tweaked and made it just right.”

Bill Bartnik, operations manager for Sheboygan-based Rockline Industries and another participant in the event’s roundtable discussion, said his company saw a demand surge similar to the one NPS experienced. Demand for disinfecting wipes that even trickled down to baby wipes when people couldn’t get their hands on disinfecting products “went crazy” and remains so, he said.

Rockline announced at the end of August its plans to install a $20 million disinfecting wipe production line that will nearly double the company’s production capacity. The new production line, known as the XC-105 Galaxy, when completed will be one of the largest production lines for disinfecting wipes in the private brands wet wipes industry. It’s expected to be up and running in mid-2021.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new level of awareness among the American people about the importance of proper surface disinfection,” Randy Rudolph, president of Rockline Industries, said in a press release. “We are making a huge investment in the future by installing the Galaxy line to ensure that our customers will be able to meet consumers’ increasing demand for disinfecting wipes.”

In addition to wipes, Rockline saw record-setting demand for coffee filters, a product that typically sees demand peak in fall and winter, not summer.

“The two businesses we’re in, it’s not the way we wanted to grow the business, but we were there to help in a crisis,” Bartnik said in the discussion.

A massive investment

Bryan Hollenbach, executive vice president of Green Bay Packaging and the third panelist in the discussion, says construction of a $583 million mill in Green Bay — the state’s first new paper mill in 30 years — continues to progress and is on track for opening in the first quarter of 2021.

While Hollenbach says the pandemic strained the company’s ability to stay on track for the opening, it mobilized quickly to address challenges. It established a “war room” mentality, meeting every day initially and now two days a week, and created teams focused on issues such as acquiring PPE and implementing social distancing measures.

As for the company’s economic health, Hollenbach says the packaging side of its business has thrived thanks to the strong performance of e-commerce businesses. It also sells to a lot of customers serving the foodservice and entertainment industries, and that side of the business has suffered.

“We have a very diversified mix of customers, and that’s really played to our benefit,” Hollenbach says, adding that no one customer makes anywhere near even 3 percent of the company’s total business.

When the new mill opens, it will increase Green Bay Packaging’s capacity by 2.5 times as well as allowing it to put out a higher-quality product. “This will be as good a sheet of paper as there is in the industry,” Hollenbach says.

The plant, which will use no water from the Fox River and will use 100 percent recycled fiber, is set to be the most environmentally friendly paper mill in the United States, Hollenbach says. Already last December, Green
Bay Packaging got rid of its coal-fired boilers and replaced them with natural gas, a move that reduced emissions by 90 percent.

Green Bay Packaging, which employs 4,200 across the country and 1,500 in Wisconsin, 1,000 of those in Brown County, plans to hire 200 additional workers when the new mill opens. Hollenbach says the company has been working on retention and recruitment plans for a long time.

Internet job postings as well as word of mouth, thanks to the company’s strong reputation, have proved successful recruiting tools thus far. The company needs talent from production workers to engineers to management and office workers.

“A production worker in our company is a very fairly and well-compensated position. It’s also a pretty high-skilled position,” Hollenbach says.

While the pandemic will continue to challenge manufacturers, LaMue says with major investments like those
made by Green Bay Packaging, Rockline and NPS, along with the region’s natural resource assets and strong supply chain, the paper industry is poised well. To thrive, companies will need to continue to focus on upgrading technology and attracting a well-trained workforce, she says.

With the region’s heavy concentration of manufacturing companies and jobs, LaMue sees huge opportunities to increase production and exports — and bring back more domestic manufacturing, making the United States less reliant on other countries.

“If we can re-engineer a product within a month and a half and get it to market quickly, (we could) look at those opportunities that … we could have our products be exported to India and to Brazil and to the UK more so than what it is currently,” she says.