WESTBROOK, Maine — Sappi Paper’s mill in Westbrook has remained standing in the 21st century by learning to let go.

The mill staked its future on paper with the key of not sticking to things, allowing paper-backed patterns to be pressed into synthetic materials, laminate flooring, leather and other products.

The mill has shed thousands of jobs since hitting peak employment levels in the 1950s but carved a path to profitability through a spate of tough times and recent closures in the industry.

Donna Cassese, chairwoman of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association and managing director of wood resource strategy for Sappi, said the mill is one example of how not all of the state’s paper industry is dead or dying, but it is “changing and evolving.”

“We have to continue to reinvent ourselves,” said Cassese, who is leading the Pulp and Paper Association as it develops new state policy goals to propose to lawmakers later this year.

During the early 2000s, the Westbrook mill completed a long shift away from publishing markets, converting lower efficiency, turn-of-the-century paper machines to what’s called release paper, research that began when the mill was still in the hands of S.D. Warren Co. That paper, coated with various textures, can be used to create a range of products, including patterned car interiors, flooring, shoes and soccer balls.

The mill was sold to Scott Paper in 1967 and to Sappi in 1994.

Mike Standel, the mill’s managing director, said the company’s market research focuses now on forecasting quickly changing fashion trends. Those quick changes, he said, give it an advantage in competing with other methods for pressing textures into a material, such as using stainless steel belts or plates.

“It’s always important to be first, and we can provide something unique that can let our customers have exclusivity or be first to market,” Standel said.

The Westbrook mill produces about 40 percent of the global market for release paper, according to Standel, who said Europe and China are key markets in the business for which about 92 percent of its product is exported.

With the last two years bringing mill closures in East Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town, Bucksport and Madison, Cassese said Sappi has a three-part strategy for the state’s single largest remaining paper company to avoid a similar fate.

Two of those goals relate to the South African company’s Maine mills, keeping what once was the world’s largest pulp and paper mill in Skowhegan efficient to compete in printing and publishing while focusing on high-margin products in Westbrook.

Those higher margins help shield the mill from fluctuations in wood and energy costs, better than for mills like the shuttered Lincoln Paper and Tissue, Cassese said, which struggled after losing the ability to produce pulp on-site.

“Integrated mills definitely have an advantage over nonintegrated mills,” Cassese said. “[In Westbrook], we are fortunate that the margin is enough that we can afford to buy market pulp.”

At its mill in Westbrook, its Somerset mill in Skowhegan and its inside sales operation in South Portland, Sappi employs about 1,200 people. That’s less than half the historical peak employment in Westbrook alone.

Sappi’s third aim is to produce dissolving wood pulp out of its Minnesota mill. That pulp can make Rayon fiber, used in clothing and other textiles.

Cassese said the mill remains concerned about access to wood and the state’s logging capacity.

“Maine has had a reputation as the most diverse market in the whole United States, so if I go in and cut, I can get rid of junk trees as biomass, I can get rid of the softwood pulp, the logs, hardwood pulp,” Cassese said.

Plummeting gas prices have changed that, with biomass plant shutdowns limiting the market for that wood and other mill closures cutting customers for softwood species.

Loggers have said the situation puts them in a jam and prompted the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine to promote a bill during this past legislative session to prop up the state’s biomass power generators using a dedicated power procurement.

Cassese noted the Pulp and Paper Association didn’t take a position on that bill, as members didn’t have uniform opinions about the proposal. Sappi and Catalyst objected to an initial version of the bill increasing power rates. The final version of the bill, LD 1676, uses unappropriated money in the state’s General Fund to pay for above-market costs of those deals.

But for the remaining mills, she said, are largely all seeking hardwood species.

“Hardwood is what everybody wants and finding hardwood is still a little bit tough,” Cassese said.

To that end, she said Sappi has taken steps to secure wood supply in Maine, by hiring foresters to work with private landowners, particularly in southern Maine. It’s an issue she said the association may take up later this year in legislative proposals. But much still rests on the backs of the state’s papermakers, she said.

“We own being efficient and making the products that people want to buy — we get that we own most of it,” Cassese said. “But that there are some public policy pieces that would definitely help us.”

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.