Sault Ste. Marie or, as the locals call it, The Soo, is located at the hub of the Great Lakes and acts as an international port of entry to the United States. Placed on the Trans Canada Highway and adjacent to Interstate 75, the city is within a day's drive to major North American cities including Toronto, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. This strategic location has always been a key factor in the community's industrial and social development. The steel and forestry industries, along with the waterway, have formed the basis for growth in the area for over one hundred years.
"Sharing our resources and strengthening our community" is the motto that St. Marys Paper Ltd (SMPL) proudly uses to describe its relationship with the city. Operating a 240,000 t/y paper mill, the company produces SCA, premium SCA and SCB grades, marketed under the trade names Sequence, Sequel and Synpress. These are used primarily by magazine publishers and large retail companies for advertising inserts, flyers and catalogues. More than 95% of the paper is sold to the United States. With 385 employees and 110 years of history, SMPL stands for maintaining a safe, productive and environmentally sound operation.
"We are one of the economic pillars of the area," said Tris Cicchello, PM5 superintendent. With almost 85% of the mill workers tracing their roots to Northern Ontario, there is a unique relationship between the city, the industry and the mill itself. Bob Yrjola, pulping superintendent, was born in the city and has worked at the mill for 28 years. "It is not unusual to have three generations of the same family working at the mill," added Marc Dube, external affairs manager, "and we are extremely proud of that."
Mill manager Mike Parker, is a self-admitted 'gypsy' when it comes to moving from location to location. With 31 years of experience in the pulp and paper industry, he has worked at mills across Canada as well as in the United States and Great Britain. He said, "There is truly a special spirit between the people and the city here in Sault Ste. Marie."
Artefacts dating back to 7,000 BC have been found here, proving the region was settled thousands of years ago. With the arrival of the Europeans, it was Samuel de Champlain, in 1610, who sent out a young explorer, Brule, to discover the interior of the New World. His travels brought him to the Sault area and he named the region Sault du Gaston, in honour of the brother of the King of France. Champlain marked Sault on the map in 1632, making it one of the first named places in the New World. In 1669 missionary Jesuit priests renamed the area Sault Ste. Marie, meaning, 'the rapids of St Mary.' As fur trading expanded into the interior of the continent, construction of a canal and lock system was completed by the end of the eighteenth century. The community grew to be a major transportation and trading point.
History of papermaking
In 1884 American industrialist, Frances H. Clerque, arrived in the area with the notion that St. Marys River offered the potential for hydro generation for domestic as well as industrial applications. He was instrumental in the creation of the first pulp and paper mill in 1895, under the ownership of the Lake Superior Corporation. This first groundwood pulp mill was called the Sault Ste. Marie Pulp and Sulphite Company. Although the mill was shut down in 1903 because of unfavourable market conditions, operations resumed again in 1911 with PM1 and PM2. In December of 1912, PM4 became operational, with PM3 being added a year later. The Lake Superior Paper Company amalgamated with the Spanish River Pulp & Paper Mills in 1917. They operated the mill until the Abitibi Power and Paper Company purchased it in 1928. Abitibi introduced the production of directory and catalogue specialty papers, along with newsprint. In the following half century, the mill solidified its position as a major paper producer in Canada. It was in 1984 that a major change in ownership and product occurred when Dan Alexander, an American investor purchased the mill. St. Marys Paper was born, and almost immediately PM3 and PM4 machines were converted to SCB paper grades, with the installation of the first two supercalenders. Four years later, they were followed by PM5 machine, designed to produce SCA, along with four Tampella Grinders.
The team approach
Ten years later, a group of outside investors, led by Ronald N. Stern, along with mill employees assumed ownership of the mill. SMPL enjoyed its 100th anniversary of operation in 1995. Last year also marked a milestone as the company celebrated its tenth anniversary as a restructured private company, which includes employee ownership. Parker said, "This type of ownership goes hand-in-hand with employee interest and creates a strong level of understanding about the operation and the business environment."
Ronald N. Stern, on a first-name basis within the mill, is a lawyer and business entrepreneur. He was last featured in this column in April 2004, when we visited the operations of the Alberta Newsprint Company where he is president and CEO. He also owns paper properties south of the border, in Oregon and Texas, and, as Parker said, "He treats each of his businesses as stand-alone operations, and lets the managers within each operation run it. I carry this philosophy down to the mill floor." Parker added, "I see my job as helping others to do theirs, while guiding them back to the basics."
Quality improvements usually follow, as witnessed by this recent achievement that people at the mill talked about. Parker said, "The most important quality parametre in our customer pressrooms is runnability. This is defined as the number of page breaks per one hundred rolls printed. SMPL has made tremendous improvements in this area over the last nine months after suffering a bad spell in early 2004," he continued. "We are now at 0.8% on our biggest SCA papermachine. Three percent is usually considered the minimum standard. Credit really lies with the guys on the floor. Their efforts really paid off." Tris Cicchello added, "and we achieved this without any extra capital spending. It was just the team and the machines working together to get more done with what we have." Not being part of a large corporation SMPL operates a type of boutique approach to its clients, where the customers' needs become paramount.
Todd Black, maintenance and engineering manager said, "I have seen us responding to a client's special needs in 24-48 hours. This is what makes working at St. Marys Paper special." The next 110 years will inevitably bring new challenges to St Mary Paper Ltd. The mill employees are confident that what is described as the 'stable, consistent down-to-earth style' of Mike Parker, and the 'caring, and committed' style of Marc Dube puts the mill in expert hands to overcome whatever the future has in store for the industry.
The BASICS of a SIMPLE APPROACH to SUCCESS
* Create and maintain a quality product
* Ensure flexibility, while controlling costs
* Service your clients' specific needs
The team approach has been used in several mill-wide, employee centred initiatives:
* Capital Expenditure Committee CAPEX * The Quality Improvement Committee (QIC) * Statistical Process Control Committee (SPC)
* Mill Steering Committee * Joint Health & Safety Committee