March 16, 2010

Sappi mill in good hands


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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Friday, June 13, 2008: Donna Cassese is the new Mill Manager for Sappi's Westbrook plant. One of her first projects was undertaken to reduce needless distracting signage in the plant. This is one of her favorites.

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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Friday, June 13, 2008: Gene LaPointe Shipping leader at Westbrook's SAPPI paper Mill, talks with Donna Cassese, the new Mill Manager for Sappi's Westbrook plant, who took over 12 weeks ago.

Staff Writer

WESTBROOK — The introductory forestry class went to a mixed woodlot, where the college students got their first assignment: Identify as many as trees as you can.

For Donna Cassese, who was then a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono, it was a challenge. She had grown up in a tenement building in the Bronx, and hadn't had much experience in the woods -- unlike her mostly male fellow students, many of whom had grown up around chainsaws in towns like Madawaska and Fort Kent.

She looked dubiously at the first tree, a conifer, and wrote down ''Christmas tree.'' Ditto for tree number two, another evergreen.

Her professor spoke to her after about her lack of knowledge.

''Why do you think I'm taking this class?'' Cassese recalled answering him some 30-plus years ago.

She went on to graduate from Orono, become a forester and, at one point, managed Scott Paper's million acres of woodlands in Maine. A little over three months ago, she became the mill manager at Sappi's Westbrook plant.

Cassese, who is 54, takes over at a time when the 331-person Westbrook mill is doing well. There's strong demand for its speciality products.

The mill makes textured release papers for various industries, including the fashion to automotive sectors. These release papers are used to produce synthetic fabrics, such as vinyl, fake lizard-skin, imitation patent leather and other materials. And the faux leather business is thriving.

The mill is running heavy on overtime, as workers try to fill demand and increase its market share at a time when currency rates are in its favor.

Cassese steps into a top position normally held by men, in the manufacturing field where three-quarters of the workers in Maine are male. John Williams, president of the Maine Pulp & Paper Association, said he's only aware of two other mills in the state that have had female mill managers, in Baileyville and in Old Town -- and there's no others now.

Cassese, though, said she thinks she's seen as an individual and as a leader -- regardless of gender.

She was hired out of college by Scott Paper and spent 15 years as a forester. Scott had a million acres of land, and she initially was in charge of about a third of it, logging, building roads, planting trees, handling community relations and spraying for spruce budworms.

She worked as forester for Scott in Alabama for a few years, before returning to Maine as Scott's forestry manager, overseeing the entire million acres. Other positions -- involving sales, human resources, logistics and manufacturing operations -- followed in a variety of states.Bob Weeden, vice president for release and technical specialities, said the variety of positions has prepared her well for the Westbrook job.

''She sees the whole gamut, from the tree all the way to finished product and has experience in all those areas,'' he said.

In each job she's held, Cassese has tried to focus on two or three priorities -- it's a case of doing a few things very well or many things poorly. Keeping a narrow focus on goals makes it easy to get the whole organization engaged, increasing the chance that the workplace culture will actually change, she said.

Cassese has identified three main areas for focus in Westbrook: Safety, yield (waste reduction) and customer service.

She's had Sappi safety officers train workers to be better observers, so they can spot hazards they may have been glancing over for decades. She's on a mission to remove clutter from the vast and largely vacant mill, she said. Her managers are currently competing to see who can gather and remove the most useless, outdated signs from the mill. The winner gets a $40 gas card.

There are plenty of ''No Smoking'' signs piled up in a room. They're not needed because the whole mill is nonsmoking, Cassese said.

To address waste, she brought in a kaizen team to look at the mill from a lean manufacturing perspective. Kaizen is a term that originated in Japan and refers to efforts at continually improving processes, such as those at a manufacturing plant.

The team found that the mill was slabbing 1,200 tons of paper a year -- cutting off the top layer of a paper roll due to damage. The problem is that paper is made on one end of the mill, then transported to the other side of the factory. That move increases the chance that rolls will be damaged.

The Kaizen group found trouble spots on roll transporters and applied foam padding to cut down on problems.

Other steps include selling some extraneous properties, including The Elms, a former guest house that's now a bed and breakfast. The mill plans to take in tenants for some of the vast unused space it retains.

Altough Cassese has led a varied career, she thinks she may be in Westbrook for more than her standard two years.

''This is a big job,'' she said. ''I see myself here for the long-term.''

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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