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A failure to communicate


Just recently I read a book on the Jimmy Carter presidency. When asked to describe leadership, his wife Rosalyn Carter noted: "a leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." In looking back on the shameless demise of our paper mill here I can only shake my head at the lack of 'real leadership' and communication around this issue. In an earlier column I described it as 'counterfeit leadership.' As I reflect on this entire crisis I have listened to opinions from many townspeople. I have even received e-mails from those expressing their opinion on the issue, not to mention lengthy conversations in grocery stores. Respectful of all opinions I have not changed my mind around leadership. There was none.

My perspective -

Just recently I read a book on the Jimmy Carter presidency. When asked to describe leadership, his wife Rosalyn Carter noted: "a leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be."

In looking back on the shameless demise of our paper mill here I can only shake my head at the lack of 'real leadership' and communication around this issue. In an earlier column I described it as 'counterfeit leadership.' As I reflect on this entire crisis I have listened to opinions from many townspeople. I have even received e-mails from those expressing their opinion on the issue, not to mention lengthy conversations in grocery stores. Respectful of all opinions I have not changed my mind around leadership. There was none.

But you can always find someone to blame. In this column I would like to explore the lack of communication which led, in my opinion, to the failure of the entire process and I might add continues to be a major problem.

Having worked in public relations (communications) and government affairs for the paper company I would have thought they (AbitibiBowater) would at least have placed an advertisement in the local paper explaining their restructuring plan to all of the other stakeholders and the public. Instead they put all of their communication eggs in the union, government basket. Explaining their position to the general population here was not a priority and still isn't.

You may recall that after the Stephenville crisis then Natural Resources Minister Ed Byrne held an open forum in the stadium here to explain government's position, especially as it related to # 7 paper machine, unfortunately such was not the case this time around. There is speculation as to why government didn't want to take such an approach this time. They like Abitibi Bowater played their cards with the union leadership thus the lack of communication for the rest of us.

In the meantime, the communication process (or lack of one) displayed by the company came across as arrogant, curt and disrespectful to the many long time employees and contractors who contributed to this company for many years. When David Paterson the company CEO, visited last year there was no time to speak with employees, the town or any of the business leaders. At that time I even suggested, in my column, the CEO take the time to meet with council and other leaders. The town had announced it would agree to give up a portion of its grant to help save the business. But such was not the case.

Communication with all of the other stakeholders was not seen as important. Someone in their wisdom at Abitibi Bowater thought the communication process ended with Gary Healey and Kathy Dunderdale. The thought of explaining the Abitibi plan, in a public forum, to employees and their families as well as the area business leaders went out the door. This was a huge mistake if the company truly wanted stakeholder buy in.

Looking back Mr. Paterson apparently had only come to kick the tires on the old car and to see for himself if there was anything left in the tank.

During this entire process there was no mention whatsoever of what package was offered to unionized employees. Details on the final restructuring agreement were not properly explained to the public and some might argue to the union membership. How the paper company planned to operate the paper mill with less people was not explained for the public to fully understand. The new vision for the Grand Falls mill was never fully explained or more importantly understood.

We lost our paper mill because the communication process was flawed by not only Abitibi but all concerned. A century of papermaking here went down the tubes with Jean Philip Cote of AbitibiBowater saying, "No, we didn't announce a shut down to negotiate anything."

In communications it's sometimes not what you say but how you say it.

People will forget what you said, but will never forget the way you made them feel.

This company, however, deserves to be remembered for all the good they did for the entire province, especially Central Newfoundland. Many of its citizens remember and respect the company contributions to health care and education. A contribution of $600,000 to the South and Central Health Foundation in the late 1980s is just one example. Those working for the company were blessed with good wages and benefits. Papermaking after all is still honorable work.

The citizens and employees of the Grand Falls-Windsor mill will forever debate the merits of whether this was a good business decision for AbitibiBowater and its shareholders and blame will forever be placed in many directions. What we do know is that it was not good news for the town and as I said earlier the business community will pay the price for counterfeit leadership at all levels.

Both the company, government and the union kept all of the cards close to their chest. Nobody else apparently mattered. By properly explaining this restructuring in an open town hall forum, (with the overheads and flip charts) just might have saved the day. Instead government, the union and the company played the Stephenville card and ended up with the same result. It's my perspective the communication process failed us and for that the company must take full responsibility. It was their restructuring plan and their mill. They forgot there were other stakeholders.

The CEO has since went on to do a lengthy interview with CBC and BNN, the business network, regarding the expropriation but I wonder why David Paterson didn't communicate directly with the town and its citizens in the first place. This was a terrible oversight and a mark of disrespect for the region. Maybe CEO's don't do that sort of thing anymore, but in today's real world we now know that you can't put control of your business in the hands of a few union executives. It simply doesn't work.

Residents here will continue to wonder if there was anything that could have been done to save the day. While the town council and MHA Susan Sullivan were apparently kept abreast of the progress (or lack thereof) there was no attempt by either to communicate fully with the citizens. Town councillors and area MHA's were silent or muted. A concerned citizens committee formed a few years before to save the No. 7 paper machine just disappeared completely. Rhetoric from the union and the government just added fuel to the fire.

While I am saddened by the anger and frustration that has been generated throughout this peaceful town over the AbitibiBowater demise, I am puzzled by the company's willingness to allow its reputation to continue to be dragged through the mud. I am amazed the company appears to be baffled as it plans its exit. Where is the communication? Maybe they just don't care as they strive to fight off bankruptcy. Maybe those in Montreal forget that this company was a well-respected corporate citizen to Newfoundland and Labrador for close to 100 years. Protecting the company image and communicating to its citizens is critical during these tough times even as you plan an exit strategy.

If the company's mission statement was to reflect the need to communicate with all stakeholders in an open and honest forum then the communication process failed this company in its attempt to restructure its Newfoundland operations. Maybe that's the way it was designed to be. Right now I'm guessing Abitibi Bowater is stumbling to understand just what they have gotten themselves into as they try to exit the province.

If I were on the board of directors of this company, there would be a heck of a lot of questions I would want to ask about the entire communications process and the business leaders who were tasked with following this through. Why this company let a union executive dictate the future of this operation and that of the region is beyond me.

I conclude with a quote I picked up many years ago: "If you won't use the energy it takes to get what you want then you will use more energy dealing with what you get."

Isn't that where the company is right now?

Roger Pike writes from Grand Falls-Windsor. He can be reached at roger.pike@nf.sympatico.ca.

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