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Passion for innovation: Q&A with Sylvie Briere, operational excellence manager at Rolland

March 6, 2023  By Sukanya Ray Ghosh

Who: Sylvie Briere

Role: Operational excellence manager

Employer: Rolland, Sustana Group


Lives in: Saint-Jérôme, Québec

Years in the industry: 25

In Sylvie Briere’s 25-year career in the industry, there has never been a dull moment. Passionate about innovating and improving processes at Rolland, Briere also takes pleasure in passing on the knowledge she has acquired over the years.

Pulp & Paper Canada: When, how and why did you come to join the pulp and paper industry?

Sylvie Briere: My father was a paper maker. He was the manager of the engineering maintenance department. When I was young, I visited a lot of different mills that my father worked for. When he came to Saint-Jérôme to work at Rolland, I was studying science with the goal of becoming a dentist. At that time, I had an opportunity to work at the laboratory here at Rolland.

The mill is such a big world on its own with complex processes that it captured my interest. I would go around asking a lot of questions to the mill crew members. The team that worked on paper machines answered my questions by making me browse the catacombs of this mill. Some managers at that time spotted me and offered me a post here.

I remember going to my father nervously, expecting him to ask me to return to school to access the dentistry program. Instead, he told me that he could see that I was shining in this mill. He told me to do what makes me happy; he would support me.

P&PC: What has your learning curve been like in this industry?

SB: Things move so fast sometimes! Rolland offered me a management position after I gained some experience. The company supported me in this transition, helping me complete a management certification from Montreal.

I have been through the technical department and in the production department. Now I’m responsible for continuous improvement and operational excellence.

I oversee performance and improve KPIs. I’m trying to raise the bar by improving performance. The gains may look small. For example, improving performance can reduce rejects by one percent. On a big paper machine, that translates to big savings. Optimizing the chemicals used and the pulp recipes are all very important.

We have a lot of young managers. I like raising them up and helping them succeed and take over someday. The more we pass on our knowledge, the more we are available to work on something else. I am now working on cost reduction with the finance department as well.

P&PC: What is your current role and what is your day-to-day like in this role?

SB: I am now responsible for ensuring the operational excellence of the mill.

At the end of every month, I pull all the data on the rejects and the lost times and make action plans with every supervisor on each machine to make sure that we do the right things.

With them, I discuss if we do a project, what is going to be the payback, the project timeline, etc. The job is to get the data to demonstrate that we can have that capital and that it will improve processes and contribute to everyone’s progress.

And every day, I walk on the mill floor and in the basement. When I started at Rolland early in my career, I quickly realized that it is crucial in papermaking to know all about what happens in the basement. Now, just listening to the sounds I can tell if there is something wrong in the mill. I take young workers with me and help them learn to recognize those sounds and understand when to call for help.

I cannot spend the day without walking the mill floor!

P&PC: What are some major projects that you have worked on? Any particular favourites?

SB: We conducted a trial here with a small creative engineering crew from West Canada that wanted to produce paper with linen.

They brought their own pulp and we gave them machine time and all the support to make it happen!

I made a recipe with them and we put that on the machine. Believe me, our cleaners were so tired after that production; we could see so many seeds going out the cleaners!

We persevered and made it happen. The physical properties were phenomenal; we could almost pull a car with the sheet! Their team printed a book. A couple of months later, they sent a book to everyone, including the team on the mill floor with a dedication.

It was not a money-making project for us. I loved that it was a very green process. The linen that they used was gathered from waste that was not consumed in the market. I was very proud to be a part of that project.

There was another project that we worked on. It was a trial with starch, one of the main chemicals we add to paper. No one wanted to work on it as it was a big molecular change that is very challenging on the wet-end chemistry. We had to tweak all the other additives and parameters to cook that starch. It was such a success! Everyone loved the outcome. The team we worked with was very thankful to us for working on this trial.

I’m always proud about working on such projects!

P&PC: Throughout your time in this industry, are there any particular challenges that you have faced?

SB: There have been many challenges along the way. The industry and the world have evolved. When I started here, I was the first woman in the production department and then I was one of the first female managers. I was also very young and there were experienced runners working at the mill. It was a challenge to be respected. We had to be rough and tough.

My challenge now is to not be as rough anymore. My focus is on how to help people and help them be better. I now try to make sure that I pass on that pride in our mill and the pulp and paper industry.

P&PC: What do you love the most about being a part of the pulp and paper sector?

SB: I love the papermaking process as a whole – the complexity of the chemistry, the mechanics and everything that we have to put together. Teamwork is so important to make things happen. I like to identify talented people to help them realize their potential. I try to get them into management so that they can first understand first our role and then take that responsibility. I love to coach people.

P&PC: What has it been like as a woman in this industry?

SB: The industry is a rough place to be in and we have to be strong to have a place at the table. As I was one of the youngest managers and a woman in the management team at Rolland in early 2000, it was tough at that point because of a strong union and old mentalities!

The more I evolved in the industry through the years, the more respect I earned. As I mentioned earlier, my challenge now is to be softer on people to help them grow. So I keep in mind something that a manager told me five years ago: “Be hard on the process and soft on the people.”

Now, I am very much a part of the team, a part of the “guys” in the mill even when I am the only woman.

I am proud to have that respect from everyone now. I am also greatly supported by senior management, our president, Kevin Richard and our vice-president of operations, Mehdi Benhadjoudja, which is crucial to continue my development as well.

P&PC: Any anecdotes you would like to share about any moments in your career that have stayed with you?

SB: Twenty-five years ago, the behaviours were so different. There was a lot of teasing when I would do my rounds and go to the mill basement. There was a trick where you could get a bucket of water on your head during a tour in the basement or a trick spilling water with firehoses. These were soft tricks in the spirit of fun but we did damage with the tricks. I remember that there was something that broke in the mill as a result. When that happened, it was not fun anymore. We decided to stop them and they are not tolerated anymore today.

At lunch times, team members often share their own anecdotes and stories that help us come together as a team. We do have a lot of fun even today. Just not anything dangerous or objectionable.

P&PC: What do you see in your future in this industry?

SB: I have the support and trust from the upper management at Rolland, especially from our president KevinRichard, and vice-president of operations, Mehdi Benhadjoudja. They have a lot of challenges. With the lack of labour that we have right now, we have to make sure that we have a solid foundation for all the paper grades that we’re making. We have to make sure that when we do set action plans, we stick to them. We try to demonstrate the repeatability of everything we do. So, they have a lot of projects from for me in the future. And I think I can continue to support these efforts and work on always improving our practices. For the future, we are also looking at improving safety to the highest levels in our mill.

P&PC: What advice do you have for women who want to build careers in this industry?

SB: If you are a hard worker and passionate, just jump right into learning and working in this industry!

This article is part of  Pulp & Paper Canada, CFI and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series, an annual celebration of women in the industry. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtag: #WomeninForestry.

Remember to join us for the Women in Forestry Virtual Summit on Mar. 7 at 11 am ET/8 am PT! It’s FREE to register. Sign up now!

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