Product diversity key to Sappi’s future

New mill director Tom Radovich cautions against depending upon a single forest product

Recent decades have been challenging for paper manufacturers, something Sappi North America’s new mill director in Cloquet stresses during conversation.

“We actually are a diversified forest products company,” said Tom Radovich, who is very serious in using those terms to describe the plant. “Our mission is to get involved in markets that are growing in the forest products industry, recognizing that we have some markets that are declining.” 

His observations are supported by considerable experience. Radovich has been with the Cloquet Mill for 25 years. He  began in the Technical Department during 1994, when Potlatch owned the business. After Sappi’s acquisition in 2002, he was named paper operations superintendent, then promoted to operations lead in 2005. His work has included the upgrade of the paper machine 12 coater, leading the pulp mill conversion project for the new dry fiber building and upgrading the former paper machine 4. After his 2017 promotion to paper mill manager, his leadership was instrumental in achieving the mill’s record efficiency performance, Sappi said. 

Named managing director on Dec. 1, Radovich believes strongly in Sappi’s emphasis on research and development to create new forest products – rather than relying on just paper. 

Eighteen years ago, the facility manufactured kraft pulp, the main component of its paper products. Now it makes three products, explained Radovich, a Hibbing native who grew up around heavy manufacturing but graduated in the mid-1980s when the mining market was in a deep slump. After purchasing the mill from Potlatch, Sappi soon looked for ways to diversify its output.

It still manufactures graphic paper, 340,000 tons annually, which is used for high-end advertising in catalogs and brochures.

“That’s the market that has been declining,” Radovich said.  “People are shopping online. They don’t get the big J.C. Penney catalog anymore. We promote paper a little differently now. Some people still like the feel of paper, and the touch. So we still have a pretty healthy market share.”

Knowing, however, that paper demand is on decline, Sappi converted the mill to manufacture dissolving wood pulp (DWP) in 2013. The new product is a filler used in the food and pharmaceutical industries. It’s also a key ingredient in Rayon, which is used in clothing and other textiles. Each year, the Cloquet plant manufactures 370,000 tons of DWP.

Three years ago, LusterCote joined the Cloquet product line. 

“It’s applied to laminate and is used for point of purchase displays. That’s about 10 percent of what we make today,” he said. It is also used to create premium packaging. 

Sappi reduced mill staffing slightly when it purchased the Cloquet facility, but in the 18 years that followed, employment has consistently remained at 700. Meanwhile, output has approximately doubled. Today, Radovich said, his job is to improve efficiency which helping to explore new products.

Among his first tasks as mill director was to lobby Gov. Tim Walz about the need to keep funding Minnesota’s  bio-incentive program. Walz toured the plant in January and learned about Sappi’s process to use and re-use lignin (an organic material that binds wood fibers) as boiler fuel. The program encourages manufactures to recycle bio products.

“He was very impressed with what he saw,” Radovich said about the governor. “He said he’d make funding a priority for us.”

Meanwhile, Radovich is managing procedures that Sappi has shown will ensure success in the wood products industry.

“The products that you make have to be consistently high quality, and you constantly have to improve your efficiency,” he said. “At the same time, you have to balance that with exploring new opportunities. If you take a look at what we made in terms of volumes when Sappi acquired the mill versus today, it’s dramatically different in terms of output and how we operate. You’ve got to make that evolution every 10 years or so. The vision of the company is ‘Where to next?’”