Planting a development seed

Former mill manager suggests resource availability could still lead to local production

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on January 4, 2016

The former general manager of the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor said a tissue-producing plant could possibly work for Central Newfoundland and could utilize the province’s tremendous forest resources.

“I’ve worked all over the world… and I’ve never, ever come across a fibre that’s as good as Newfoundland Black Spruce. Right now it’s only being used for newsprint in Corner Brook and that’s sad,” David Kerr said during a recent telephone interview.

“It’s inexpensive to convert and it’s a shame that that fibre is not being used. In my view, it’s the best fibre in the world,” Kerr added.

Kerr tosses out the idea of some clever engineers and businesspeople coming up with a plan to produce a product that is not in decline.

“I always think that tissue could have been something that could have been done, but that means there’s nothing that could have been done in the (old) mill. You would need to build a new mill.”

Kerr said there is a lot of birch and aspen in Newfoundland that could also be used to make tissue.

“Typically you would also put some softwood in so that would be the Newfoundland Black Spruce. So a mixture of softwood and hardwood in a small kraft mill would make sense,” he said.

While it might possibly make sense and there would be huge markets for such products, Kerr said, such a venture would be both costly and risky.

“You’d need a couple or three tissue machines with the converting plant to make some high end tissue grades, then sell all along the Eastern Seaboard… but, it’s very competitive … To build a mill like that would be expensive but certainly Newfoundland has the fibre resources to do something like that.”

As the former Abitibi-Bowater mill in Grand Falls-Windsor is under demolition, Kerr offered some thoughts on the demise of the facility.

The closure of AbitibiBowater in 2009 – after a century in operation - had nothing to do with its employees, Kerr said, rather advances in technology.

If somebody was to find a business solution for Grand Falls-Windsor, he said, they would have no trouble finding “excellent resources in the labour force.”

“People are clever. They know how to figure things out. That just comes from their background of working and living on an island ... So, if somebody was to come with a good business solution for tissue operations, I’m sure they’d be able to make it work with the labour force they have in Newfoundland.”

 

About David Kerr

Kerr managed the mill in Grand Falls for five years in the 1990s. He then moved on to manage other mills in Canada and the U.S. before heading to Asia where he spent over a decade working for different pulp and paper companies.

He is currently Vice President of Operations at Paper Excellence Canada Holdings Corp. Headquartered in Richmond, B.C. Paper Excellence owns seven mills in Canada as well as mills in France and Germany.

According to its website (www.paperexcellence.com) Paper Excellence employs about 2,600 people in Canada.

Kerr is responsible for four of those mills including Northern Resources in Nova Scotia. The mill, which the company bought in 2011, makes softwood kraft pulp that it sells to Asian markets where it’s turned into non-communication paper such as tissue, printing and writing paper and board.

The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the mill, Kerr said, having spent over 35M in the last two years in modern emission control equipment.

 

Writing on the wall

Because of the decline in the newsprint industry, Kerr doesn’t believe anything more could have been done to save the mill in Grand Falls-Windsor.

 

“We might have been able to buy a year or two with cost savings initiatives… but making the products that it was making, I think it’s doubtful that there would have been a long-term future for Grand Falls (mill).”

Newsprint mills are difficult to convert to non-communication type papers, he said.

“You can make value added grades of newsprint. You can make inserts but to get into board or tissue of packaging grades is next to impossible,” he said.

He believes the mill got caught up in the downturn of the newsprint industry as more people turned to the Internet for news, classifieds, business and other information.

He uses the horse and buggy analogy to reiterate why the mill’s life had run out.

“After the car was invented, you could never, ever make a better horse and buggy... You just could not compete with automobiles. So eventually the business of making buggies for horses just disappeared. That’s kind of the same thing we saw with newsprint versus the Internet.”

The mill in Grand Falls-Windsor is now being demolished. When asked if he felt any of the machines could be used for other purposes, Kerr doubted that could happen.

“That type of equipment is specialized for making newsprint. It’s difficult if not impossible to convert that equipment to other than paper products… So, unless somebody was able to find a business solution that would work on some paper grades, there’s nothing you can do with the equipment.”

Kerr spent over two decades living and working in Grand Falls-Windsor. It’s where his three children were born and grew up, he said.

“I miss Grand Falls. I get back every now and then… and get to talk to friends. When I go down and look at the mill, it’s sad to just see it just standing there, not running because I worked hard to help it have a future at a time when communication papers weren’t in jeopardy.”

danette@nl.rogers.com