March 10, 2010

Maine plant survives by changing

LARRY GRARD

— By

This undated photo provided Wednesday, June 24, 2009 by the Grand Forks Correctional Center shows Stacey Anvarinia. Anvarinia, the North Dakota woman accused of breast-feeding her 6-week-old baby while drunk has pleaded guilty to child neglect. The case has touched off a discussion among breast-feeding moms about the intersection of medical guidelines and privacy. (AP Photo/Grand Forks County Correctional Center, file)

AP

Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — That gigantic factory -- the one that just keeps going and going, along a quarter-mile of College Avenue in two towns and counties -- stands alone.

Among the several plants that once lined the Kennebec River in Waterville and Winslow, Huhtamaki Packaging, which was known for three-quarters of a century as Keyes Fibre, is the sole survivor. Eleven years after Kimberly-Clark closed its once-thriving Winslow paper mill and seven years after Hathaway shuttered its shirt factory in Waterville for the final time, Huhtamaki has changed with the times.

The company uses recycled fiber instead of wood, developing new products associated with its famed Chinet paper plate line. Huhtamaki employs about 420 people.

Why has it lasted?

''The first thing, obviously, is the product,'' said plant manager Ray McMullin. ''It's stood the test of time. It's always been the Cadillac of paper plates. The name 'Chinet' has very high name recognition.''

McMullin hastened to add that ''it's the people'' who are responsible for the company's survival. One employee, Terry Wilson, recently retired after 45 years at the plant.

''There are many generations of families here, like the Fullers and the Donahues,'' he said.

Citing company policy, McMullin declined to disclose annual sales at the mill.

One of 10 U.S. plants owned by the Finland-based company and about 40 worldwide, the Waterville plant produces about 1.35 billion Chinet pieces a year. It sells about 450 million ''rough items,'' those sold as coffee holders and trays.

The raw material for the Chinet items is unprinted newsprint. Discarded newsprint, milk cartons and paper cups, are stripped of their plastic and used for the rough product.

Huhtamaki realized great savings, McMullin said, when it switched from logs to recycled materials, around 1980.

''The cheaper raw material is huge,'' McMullin said. ''Logs are virgin material, so when you're making something for the first time, a lot of chemicals are involved.''

Huhtamaki electrician Joe Barney, president of U.S. Steel Workers Local 449, said that workers earn about $18 an hour including overtime.

They work 12-hour shifts, with three days on followed by three days off.

''There's always overtime,'' Barney said.

Barney said there were about 1,000 workers at the plant when he arrived in 1989. Many lost their jobs due to automation, he said. There are 50 salaried employees, far fewer than when the company had its corporate offices in Fairfield.

Workers produce three main lines: the Chinet plates, the rough-finish trays and cup holders, and the laminated ovenware, which is essentially a laminated Chinet plate.

Huhtamaki's new products include smooth, 20-ounce side dishes and Chinet plates with an embossed rim.

''When they introduce a new product, they always roll it out over here,'' said Paul Anderson, Huhtamaki planning manager. ''The development lab and the pilot machines are here.''

John Butera, director of the Central Maine Growth Council, said that companies dealing in commodities need to constantly adjust.

Waterville and Fairfield have helped Huhtamaki with its capital investment through tax-increment financing, he said.

''Their product is consumer-driven,'' Butera said. ''They just need to be on top of that, and they have been.''

Huhtamaki also has succeeded by containing costs, he said.

During a factory tour, McMullin pointed to the stacks of unused newsprint and the stacks of printed bundles.

''We load it into a blender, which grinds it with a water solution,'' he said. ''That really makes all our products.''

Randy Snow of Waterville mans a machine that makes four-cup carriers.

Standing amidst spray that emanates from the water feed into the machine, Snow weighs the wet forms, adjusts the drier and checks for defects.

Snow uses a high-pressure hose to blow off particles, and ensure good cup formation. The cups then roll to the drier.

''There are lots of moving parts, and lots of maintenance,'' Barney said.

Elsewhere, there are pallets of milk cartons and paper cups from fast-food restaurants. He picked up shreds of plastic, showing the results of the machine that strips them.

''We bale the plastic and sell to manufacturers of composite deck,'' McMullin said.

Huhtamaki sells its rough trays to restaurant franchises.

''They use them to absorb grease, before the plate their food,'' McMullin said. ''This is our largest-selling item on the rough-finish side of the business.''

To protect its technology, the company allows no photographs in the Chinet manufacturing area.

''Not only do we make the product, we design the machinery,'' McMullin said.

The company once paid $200-$300 per ton for its newsprint, but that price has fallen to less than $100 a ton now, McMullin said.

The plant, built by Martin Keyes in 1908, has changed hands three times since 1979.

Arcata, a California publishing company, owned it for a short time, from then until 1981. Van Leer purchased then purchased it, and Huhtamaki took over in what was technically a merger with Van Leer in 1999, McMullin said.

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