Domtar paper mill is approaching its centennial celebration

KINGSPORT — Domtar’s paper mill in downtown Kingsport is on the verge of reaching a significant milestone.

The mill, first doing business in 1916 as the Kingsport Pulp Mill, is approaching its centennial celebration.

In that time, the mill has seen four other owners — Mead, Willamette, Weyerhauser and now Domtar.

“It’s gone through a lot of transformation,” Domtar’s Bill MacPherson, who just completed first full year as mill manager, said of the mill. “It went through a pretty big one in 2002 where we were rebuilt as the newest and most modern paper facility in North America. It’s the last what we would call a ‘greenfield facility’ since that machine was installed.”

The main K1 copy paper producing unit is billed by Domtar as “not your Grandfather’s paper machine.”

The machine is 50 feet high and stretches more than two football fields in length.

Since 2000, about $600 million has been invested in the Kingsport location, and Domtar says $12 million in capital funds supported the facility last year.

Domtar says the mill and its Ridgefields converting facility generate 390 direct jobs, plus 750 indirect jobs and have a regional economic impact of $200 million per year. The mill’s annual payroll exceeds $35 million.

The mill produces 420,000 tons of paper per year.

“We are operating within a challenging market where people are using less paper,” MacPherson noted. “But Kingsport continues to perform at a very high level. Our challenge is continuing to reinvest and reinvent who we are and the products we make, and figuring out how we can utilize every bit of the fiber we take out of the forest. We talk about as a company being a caring, innovative agile company as our core values.

“Domtar is becoming a fiber based company. We no longer think about ourselves as manufacturing paper and just what all we can do with cellulose fiber. Our vision going forward is for Kingsport to be the premier facility in North America in terms of safety and environmental, quality, low cost, efficiency and technology.”

Domtar is using cogeneration to help steam-driven turbines produce electricity, and then make pulp and paper.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation commended the Kingsport site in 2014 for its “laudable” environmental performance, according to Domtar.

Last year, Domtar celebrated the sale of its five millionth ton of Forest Stewardship Council certified paper — a first for the North American uncoated fine paper market.

And today, during this period of rapid change, MacPherson stressed the Kingsport facility is in a hiring mode.

“We’re going through a rapid period of retirement,” he disclosed. “We’re training, hiring and recruiting the best talent we can ... that’s the biggest challenge we have on our plate right now.”

One block away, Domtar is a charter partner with the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM) in Kingsport’s downtown Academic Village.

At the RCAM, new hires go through maintenance and operator apprenticeship programs developed by Domtar, according to Manufacturing Support Manager Roger Smith.

“We are training our operators basic engineering principles, and how things work, familiarizing them with equipment they’ve never seen,” Smith explained. “They may have never seen a pump or what a control loop is. We are teaching them ... It’s a two-year associate degree program conducted through Northeast State (Community College).”

Safety performance, said Smith, is also a priority.

In 2008, Domtar completed the year without a recordable injury. Two non-life threatening injuries occurred last year. “We’re trying to eliminate every injury,” Smith stressed.

Domtar also supports contractors and suppliers, and its employees volunteer in a number of Kingsport organizations, including the United Way, Boys and Girls Club, and Court Appointed Special Advocates.

“Because we are somewhat in the shadow of a huge company like Eastman (Chemical Company), I think we tend to get a little overlooked about what all goes on inside these gates,” Smith noted. “But people who have lived here all their lives have come in and said ‘Wow I didn’t realize how complex it is in all the processes about what it takes to take a tree from the forest and put it into a sheet of paper.’

“We’re in downtown Kingsport and we want to be part of the solution to making it more beautiful.”

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