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Implementing ideas: Q&A with Irene Preto, operations specialist at Mercer Celgar

A Mercer Celgar employee reveals how working in an industry that is on the cusp of innovation inspires her

March 8, 2019  By Kristina Urquhart

Irene Preto is an operations specialist at Mercer Celgar.

Pulp & Paper Canada talked to Preto and several other women working in the pulp, paper and forestry sector for a weeklong series to celebrate International Women’s Day 2019. In her Q&A below, Preto reveals how working in an industry that is on the cusp of innovation inspires her.

Who: Irene Preto
Role: Operations specialist
Employer: Mercer Celgar
Lives in: Castlegar, B.C.
Years in industry: 15


Pulp & Paper Canada: What do you do as operations specialist at Mercer Celgar?

Irene Preto: I plan and execute capital projects in the fibreline. I bring a technical and operations perspective to the capital project team and ensure a smooth transition to operations at the end of the project. It’s my job to communicate with mill-wide stakeholders and to make sure that when operators start up the process they are trained, have the tools and documentation they need for a smooth transition.

PPC: What gives you the most satisfaction in your job?

IP: Empowering our operations team brings me the greatest satisfaction. So much of the work I’ve done is implementing ideas from the operating teams. Giving them the tools and information that they need produces results that have an impact 24/7.

PPC: What’s your favourite thing about the mill’s culture?

IP: Our mill has a small-town feel with friendly greetings as you go through. The good-natured banter between our operations teams provides comedic relief from what can be a stressful work environment.

PPC: What’s something notable you are currently working on?

IP: One of the projects that I’m working on is getting our turpentine collection system refurbished. Mercer International sells extractives and our mill will have the ability to produce another bioproduct (turpentine) for sale. This is a technical job with lots of stakeholders and re-training involved. When it’s running, it will benefit the process and profits.

PPC: When you began your career, what drew you to the pulp and paper sector?

IP: I am a chemical engineer and I started my career in a government research lab, [then] moved to policy and programming – all of which had to do with bioenergy and the wood products sector. I moved to Mercer Celgar because I was drawn to the technical aspects of the kraft process; moreover, I wanted to work in an industry that produced bioenergy and bioproducts. The potential for innovation and diversification of bioproducts excites me.

PPC: What were the greatest barriers for you as you started out in your career?

IP: I had a really steep learning curve when I started as an operations specialist. The role was a new one for our mill and not everyone was pleased to have a new person – who was a woman – in charge of the digester area. I really had to prove myself over and over.

PPC: What about now, what are the biggest challenges you find in your role at Mercer Celgar?

IP: One of our Mercer values is “Pursuit of Excellence.” I have high standards and always bring that to my work. Overcoming the sometimes-unrealistic expectations I set for myself is a challenge.

PPC: You sometimes work with co-op students at the mill. What opportunities are there at Mercer Celgar for a co-op student?

IP: Mercer Celgar typically brings in engineering co-op students to work with capital, maintenance and process engineers. With a 24/7 operation, there is always a lot to work on and students are often given projects that they can take the lead on with a supportive supervisor nearby. It’s great to see students grow in the short time they are with us. They bring refreshing energy and enthusiasm to their work. We often see students come back for multiple terms, and I’ve seen a few new hires who were once co-op students.

PPC: You’re a member of the Women Succeeding in Forestry LinkedIn group. Why is connecting with other women in the industry important to you?

IP: Following the Advancing Women in Leadership Roles panel at PaperWeek Canada [Preto was a member of the panel at the February 2019 conference], I was speaking with an industry leader, Marie Dumontier, who pointed me to the LinkedIn group. I find it inspiring to hear the stories of other women who are changing perceptions of gender in the sector, and it has motivated me to connect more with the amazing women at Celgar.

PPC: How have you seen the forestry industry change over the course of your career? What about with regard to females working in the industry, and at your workplace?

IP: I’ve been directly in a mill for seven years. The industry as a whole is getting a bit smaller with the closure of typically older paper mills. However, more mills are bolting on new technologies to produce new bioproducts like nanocrystalline cellulose and lignin.

2019 is the first year that Mercer International and Mercer Celgar are celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8! Our CEO David Gandossi provided an “influencer’s statement” on the IWD website. I was very encouraged to read his statement, which included: “At Mercer International, we believe that gender balance and diversity are foundational to our business model, bringing better decisions and direction towards our future success.”

PPC: What advice would you give to someone, especially a female, thinking about a career in the pulp and paper sector?

IP: The pulp and paper industry is full of opportunity, teamwork, technical and non-technical challenges that you can help to solve. If you want to be part of a biorefinery, this is your industry. It takes boldness to be part of an industry that isn’t gender balanced, but the only way to make the industry more diverse is to participate in it. Join us – the industry will be better with you in it!

This interview has been condensed.


This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.

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