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BiS Manufacturer of the year: International Paper's Savannah Containerboard Mill

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Company hiring to stay ahead of retirement losses

  • Photo courtesy of IP International Paper’s Savannah mill is hiring as its first generation of workers are beginning to retire.
  • Photo courtesy IP The International Paper mill as seen from the Savannah river.

International Paper’s Savannah Containerboard Mill is hiring but not necessarily because business is growing — although it is. It’s also not creating new positions.

Instead, it’s filling upcoming gaps in its workforce of 600-plus, gaps that were created nearly 20 years ago.

To understand where the Savannah mill is today, you have to understand something of the cyclical history of modern paper making.

“The industry was expanding in the decades of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” said mill manager David Castro. “Then we went through a decade where the market was saturated and we began a period of contraction in the ’90s — not just here in Savannah and not just at IP, but throughout the industry.”

Hiring ground to a halt.

“We didn’t do any new hiring because we wanted to hold on to our experienced people,” Castro said. “We reduced our workforce through regular attrition.

“In the early 2000s, we looked ahead and saw that things were really starting to pick up. But by that time, we had a gap.

“Now that gap is coming home to roost as some of our most skilled folks are retiring, taking with them 30, 40, even 50 years of experience.

“It’s been a fairly steady stream since about 2010, and we don’t see it ending in 2015,” he said.

One thing that has come about as a result of those retirements has been a change in the way the company hires and trains new employees, he said.

“So we’ve been hiring. And, as we bring people in, we have to get them trained fast.

“There was a time when we had 10 years for someone to learn the trade and work their way up. But we don’t have that kind of time anymore, so we’re having to put systems and programs in place that will help train our new hires at a lot faster rate,” he said.

 

A steeper learning curve

That task has fallen to Karen Bogans, former mill communications manager, whose new title is Mill Learning Leader.

“The company recognizes the need,” Bogans said. “We have a global initiative to bring folks in and immediately get them acclimated to our safety culture, our safety processes, our production processes and everything about the mill.”

In the last 18 months, all hires have gone through that new hiring process, Bogans said.

“They get information on all aspects of the mill — from the first stage all the way to the finishing stage — so they will be more knowledgeable and safer employees.

“Needless to say, this is not a one-day process.”

Jody Little, human resources manager for the Savannah mill, said the biggest push right now is in the hourly ranks.

“Those are the jobs we’re really pushing hard right now, because we see the retirements on the horizon,” she said. “From the salaried perspective, we haven’t been hit quite as hard yet, but we see those coming up and we’re trying to hire ahead.”

IP recruits engineers throughout the country, Castro said.

“We have a lot of engineers from North Carolina State, which has a paper science engineering degree.”

 

What it does

IP’s Savannah mill makes linerboard — unbleached kraft paper used to make boxes. The linerboard is then shipped to box plants located closer to the customers.

“Because it makes more sense to ship the dense linerboard to the box plants than it does to make boxes and ship them all over, IP has 16 containerboard mills in the U.S. that make paper-based packaging for about 190 box plants and converting operations,” Castro said.

While linerboard comprises about 75 percent of IP’s local production, the mill also has a specialty machine that produces what is known as saturating kraft — unbleached paper made specifically for such high-pressure laminate products as countertops, shelving and furniture.

Most of the Savannah mill’s product is exported, primarily across the Atlantic, Castro said.

“We have customers all over the world, but Europe is definitely our largest.”

The mill runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even on holidays.

“We only close down for one period a year for maintenance and upgrades, usually one to two weeks, depending on what needs to be done,” Castro said.

Upgrades and new equipment installation are a major part of the shutdown every year, he said.

“Ours is a capital-intensive industry. We’re always looking to operate a safe facility, reduce our costs and improve our products and processes.

“So every year, we’re either putting in new equipment or upgrading our current equipment,” he said. “It’s pretty much a continuous thing. Like any mill, if we want to stay competitive we have to put money back into the operation to keep it up-to-date.

“And, because safety is a major focus for us, we’re always looking for ways to make our equipment and processes safer.”

 

A rich history

The containerboard mill on West Lathrop Avenue has perhaps the richest history of any company in Savannah. It was widely credited with pulling the area from the depths of the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929 had thrown the country into an economic tailspin.

Indeed, Union Bag and Paper Co.’s announcement in 1935 that they would build a pulp and paper plant on the old Hermitage Plantation tract along the Savannah River was music to locals’ ears. When it opened a year later, it was considered such a big deal that Savannahians sent family and friends picture postcards touting it as the largest facility of its kind in the world.

Almost immediately, the plant’s 500 employees and their $1 million payroll injected much-needed cash into the area’s flat-lining economy. By 1939, the company’s local payroll had grown to $2.2 million and, over the next couple of decades, it seemed as if every other child’s father worked at the plant known simply as “the Bag.”

In its heyday, the mill provided more than 5,500 employees with good-paying jobs and benefits. Even the mill’s acrid odor — a by-product of cooking wood into pulp — became synonymous with prosperity.

Locals called it the smell of money.

Today, the smell is mostly gone, technology innovations have honed the plant’s workforce to its current level and “the Bag” has become part of corporate giant International Paper.

But, just as lots of things have changed over the past 80 years, others have stayed the same.

The Savannah mill continues to be a major player in the area economy, last year producing nearly one million tons of linerboard and saturating kraft. And the tradition of community involvement that Union Bag began eight decades ago remains strong, as the company and its employees give both time and money to a number of local programs.

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ABOUT THE SERIES

As 2015 comes to a close, the Savannah Morning News, Business in Savannah and savannahnow.com continue the tradition of profiling companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment during the past year.

The Business in Savannah staff chose the honorees from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community members, utilizing broad criteria — from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.

Thursday: Newcomer of the year

Today: Manufacturer of the year

Saturday: Business advocate of the year

Sunday: Entrepreneurial business of the year

Tuesday: Retail business of the year

Wednesday: Small business of the year

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