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Mill Profile: Marathon Pulp


May 1, 2004
By Pulp & Paper Canada

Marathon Pulp is situated on the north shore of Lake Superior in the town of Marathon, ON, a community of 4,500 people, half way between Sault Ste-Marie and Thunder Bay. The mill itself is 3.3 kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway and is servic…

Marathon Pulp is situated on the north shore of Lake Superior in the town of Marathon, ON, a community of 4,500 people, half way between Sault Ste-Marie and Thunder Bay. The mill itself is 3.3 kilometres from the Trans-Canada Highway and is serviced by the Canadian Pacific Railway system and its own deep-water port on Lake Superior.

As a remote rural region, the area is rich in history, with the first Europeans arriving in the 17th century. Ojibway tribes native to the area still have descendants in the region today. In 1883, with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the town of Peninsula, which stood on the present-day site of Marathon, was established. Fifty years later, in the early 1930s, activity again started to flourish as logging operations were conducted on the nearby Pic River and along the Lake Superior shoreline. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, prisoner-of-war camps were established in the area, much like at the Espanola mill which was featured in the March 2003 issue of PPC. Northern Ontario’s remote wilderness provided the ideal locale for interment.

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In 1944, Marathon Paper Mills of Canada Limited, a subsidiary of Marathon Corporation of Wisconsin, selected this site for the construction of a new pulp mill. Construction spanned a 16 month period from 1945 to October 1946, when upon completion, the kraft pulp mill established a daily production capacity of 275 tonnes. The town of Marathon was born and for the first 40 years was known as a single industry community, a town built on paper.

In the early 1980s gold was discovered in a drilling program in nearby Hemlo. By 1985 the Hemlo Gold Mines were in full operation. The gold deposit is the richest ever discovered in Canada, and one of the world’s richest outside of South Africa. The community had arrived, and being rich in both boreal forests and mineral deposits, the town that was “built on paper” was now also “laced with gold.”

Forestry and mining are the economic driving forces of the region, but for the people like Al Hitzroth, a recently-arrived resident, it is the sense of community that Marathon offers which is its strongest quality. “Being in the pulp and paper industry you quickly get used to remote locations, but for me, coming to Marathon was an adventure of new experiences and new people,” said Hitzroth. Born in Hamilton, ON, Hitzroth refers to himself as a city boy, who has come to appreciate the depth of support that small communities such as Marathon offer. “My wife and I have come to love small communities and all that they have to offer for anyone raising a family.”

Hitzroth has worked in both the steel industry in his native Hamilton and in the oil industry in Alberta. After acquiring his degree in chemical engineering from the University of Calgary in 1987, he landed his first job in the field of pulp and paper in Hinton, AB, as he admitted, “purely by accident.” From that point onwards, however, the stage was set as Hitzroth spent 12 years at Tembec’s Skookumchuk Mill and another two and a half years at Smooth Rock Falls, before being appointed VP, COO, and mill manager of Marathon Pulp.

“I miss him”, said Jack Smith, manager of Steam and Recovery at Smooth Rock Falls, “but I know it was a great evolution for his career to move on to Marathon.”

Marathon Pulp is a 50/50 partnership between Tembec and Kruger. Tembec is responsible for the day-to-day management and the operation of the northern bleached softwood kraft (NBSK) pulp mill. A long time Tembec employee, Hitzroth refers to the arrangement as, “having the best of both worlds, while strongly maintaining the Tembec philosophy of ‘a company of people building their own future’.”

NBSK (Marathon blend) from the mill is a 100% softwood blend of jack pine, white spruce and black spruce. This blend provides unique characteristics for freesheet, mechanical grades, tissue, toweling and board. About 200,00 metric tonnes of NBSK pulp is produced annually. “To think that the operation was originally built to produce 275 tonnes daily and now we produce 525 tonnes is fascinating,” said Hitzroth.

Marathon Pulp is also the holder of a Sustainable Forest Licence granted by the province of Ontario, covering 1.5 million acres of forest land located directly north of the mill. This forest land is known as the Big Pic Forest. Marathon receives approximately 50% of its fibre requirements through agreements related to this holding. Buchanan Forest Products Ltd. manages these forest lands on behalf of Marathon Pulp. Marathon sources an additional 40% of its fibre requirements through ‘evergreen’ chip supply agreements with regional sawmills, including the recently purchased Tembec sawmill in Chapleau. The mill’s final product can be found in usage in Canada (30%), in the US Midwest (45%) and in Europe (25%).

Al Hitzroth arrived to his new role at Marathon Pulp in October 2003, replacing Bob Gregor, who had been with the mill since 1977. One would assume that the transition would have been uncomfortable, but as Hitzroth said, “It is such a small industry in so many ways. Even though I had not been to Marathon, I already knew a number of people at the mill as a result of previous company and technical association interactions.”

Jim Power, the manager of Services, who has been at Marathon Pulp since 1972, recalled, “when he first arrived, he interviewed all of the management staff to get a sense of how they feel about our work environment. Nobody had ever done that before, and I will never forget it, since it shows what a team player he really is.”

Terry Bradford, production manager at the mill added, “He quickly gained the respect of people, because he is not only technically knowledgeable, but he has those excellent people skills.”

“It is quite simple,” Hitzroth told me, “my greatest joy along with ensuring the production of our product, is to get people to work together to achieve common objectives.” There are many different characters in any operation, and I have to try to get to know and understand all of them.

Power said, “His idea of an open door policy is to interact and move throughout the mill. You never know where and when you will bump into him, but you are guaranteed to see him.”

Bradford recalled that even when they disagreed on procedure, as was the case, “years ago when we needed to find a different way to measure dirt (at the Smooth Rock Falls Mill), I clearly recall how we worked together to find the best solution.”

Insiders tell me, that the true sign of acceptance for new arrivals to Marathon Ontario is experiencing their first harsh Marathon winter. Well, Al Hitzroth is now a veteran of three winters in Northern Ontario and the mild winters of southern BC are just a distant memory. Having survived the long winters unscathed, Hitzroth is now looking forward to the many new challenges and opportunities for both Marathon Pulp and for himself, that will present themselves with the advent of spring.

***

A HISTORY OF OWNERSHIP AT A GLANCE

1944 – Marathon Paper Mills begins construction of facility

1946 (October) – Construction completely and mill establishes daily production of 275 tonnes

1957 – American Can Company purchases mill and initiates modernization program

1983 (April) – Fort James & Buchanan Forest Products acquires the mill

2000 (January) – Partnership of Tembec & Kruger acquires the operation

***

UNIQUE PRODUCT CHARACTERISTICS

Freesheet

Good surface characteristics due to collapsible wall, consistent fibre length & fibre curl

Long and thin fibres give the sheet good fold tolerance

Clean and uniformly bright pulp monitored with a Paprispec plastic detection system

Mechanical Grades

Excellent tear at a given tensile and good stretch ensures smooth runnability on the paper machine

Collapsible cell walls deliver good surface characteristics

Clean and uniformly bright pulp monitored with a Paprispec plastic detection system

Tissue

Mineral refining is required to retain the maximum handfeel softness

High initial tensile and good fibre stretch
make the pulp ideal for the tissue-making process

Clean and uniformly bright pulp delivers good optical properties

Towelling

Long and strong fibres with very high unrefined tensile

Less fine fibres and good bulk characteristics for high porosity and absorption

Clean and uniformly bright pulp delivers good optical properties

Board

Thin cell walls collapse easily for a smooth sheet surface and good printability

Excellent tear at a given tensile to ensure good runnability on the board machine

Long and thin fibres give the sheet good fold tolerance


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