BRATTLEBORO -- When Case Brothers opened its new paper plant in Brattleboro in July 1961, the mill was recognized for its use of cutting-edge technology.
At the time that it was constructed it was the first new multi-cylinder paper mill built in New England in 50 years and the only facility that had ever been designed exclusively for making pressboard products.
The company, which would eventually become FiberMark, produced quality pressboard for school, business and medical offices, and prided itself for continually innovating and staying ahead of changing markets.
Since then the New England paper industry has gone through a long and steady decline, succumbing to globalization, technology and trends in business and communication that have veered away from the use of paper.
In the 53 years since the Brattleboro plant opened, hundreds of paper plants in the region have closed. But the workers and executives at FiberMark are still innovating at their small paper plant along the Connecticut River in north Brattleboro.
FiberMark recently made a more than $2 million investment in its Brattleboro plant, one of five production facilities the company runs in the United States.
Over the past 40 years FiberMark met the growing demand for office paper products that was originally spurred on by the technological revolution that brought a computer to every desk. Now that very same technology is making paper irrelevant, and FiberMark President and CEO Anthony MacLaurin said the company is making investments and seeking out new customers to ensure that they stay a step ahead of a changing market
"The markets have changed forever," MacLaurin said. "We have to move our business and find new markets and that is what we are doing."
FiberMark recently invested about $1.6 million to upgrade the drives on the paper machines in the Brattleboro plant, and another $500,000 for modern drying equipment. The new equipment allows FiberMark to produce strong and colorful paper products that fold, do not curl and remain stable and strong on a shelf.
The investments have allowed FiberMark to secure major contracts for beverage companies that want to package their products in specialty, two-colored cardboard packaging. FiberMark is producing packaging for companies like Jack Daniels, Victoria's Secrets, and W Hotels and Resorts.
"It has been a consistent trend away from paper products in the office and so the challenge with the Brattleboro mill is to find new markets," MacLaurin said. "We had to start doing things we have never done before, and that has required an investment to make it happen.
Brattleboro mill General Manager James Sherman said the investments and changes at the company have required hard work to track down the new customers, precision planning to schedule the installation of the expensive new equipment, as well as a leap of faith to move the mill away from the products it has relied on producing for decades.
"You start with a small order and test your employees and equipment and when it looks promising you take that next step," Sherman said. "At some point you need to step forward and either commit or move on, and we are making a commitment to the long term."
The new equipment will be installed this summer, after which, Sherman said, FiberMark will be able to produce the high-quality cardboard faster, more efficiently and with more precision.
Sherman said employees in the Brattleboro plant have been innovating for more than 50 years.
Some of the original equipment from 1961 is still being used, and while other, larger paper mills have been forced to close due to foreign competition, Sherman said FiberMark is once again changing what it does to remain competitive in a niche market.
"What are trying to do is manufacture material that is not easily replicated," he said. "There is a lot of experience in this plant, and our employees understand that you have to try new things to be successful."
FiberMark is a $170 million company with five plants in the United States, along with plants in the U.K. and in China. The company has 580 employees worldwide, and 114 people work in the Brattleboro mill.
Four years ago the company made a $2 million investment that allowed the Brattleboro mill to expand its use of recycled fiber, and then another $2 million was committed to energy efficiency upgrades.
MacLaurin said the company is making a commitment to the Brattleboro plant by investing in the equipment while continuing to find new markets for the company's products.
"What we are doing, and what we want to do more of, is completely different from what the Brattleboro mill has traditionally been involved with," MacLaurin said. "We've invested almost $6 million in the last few years. It's a very competitive market, and it's a huge challenge, but I think we can do it."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.