International Paper Henderson Ky

Mike Gower a dry end team member at International Paper uses a lift to transport a new roll of paper while working at the plant in Henderson Nov. 9, 2016.

It was a Canadian company with an unfamiliar name — MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. — that was engaged in something few people in the Henderson area had experience with: making paper.

But that did nothing to slow the flood of local jobseekers who sought careers at the $100 million paper recycling mill that the company known as MacBlo was constructing in Henderson Corporate Park off Sand Lane. In the spring of 1995, 2,330 people applied for the first 61 jobs that would be created — 38 applications for each job opening.

The first wave of new employees was brought on board July 31, 1995 — 25 years ago this coming Friday.

And from the beginning, the Henderson Mill was a success. It would start producing recycled containerboard — the heavy brown paper used to make corrugated shipping boxes — on Dec. 9, 1995, 45 days ahead of schedule.

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It takes months for some new paper mills to manufacture product that meets established quality standards; the Henderson Mill accomplished that in just four days.

While it wasn’t expected to operate profitably for a year or so, the mill was in the black by its second month.

International Paper in Henderson was built in 1995 on the Hoge Farm property now known as Henderson Corporate Park. The plant makes almost 700 tons of paper a day by using recycled boxes. Picture was made Nov. 9, 2016.

And it did all that with a workforce that had little experience in the field. “Out of the 78 people (running the plant), 60 had never been in a paper mill” before being hired mere months earlier, a company executive declared at an open house in May 1996. (The rest were paper industry veterans who were recruited from mills stretching from Alabama to New York.)

The Henderson Mill has never looked back. Over the past quarter-century, it has been a stable employer paying good wages, achieving safety milestones and participating in the civic life of the community. It continued to do so after MacBlo was acquired by Weyerhaeuser Co. in 1999 and after Weyerhaeuser sold its containerboard packaging and recycling business to International Paper in 2008.

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In 2016, Kyndle (now Henderson Economic Development) named the mill its Henderson County Industry of the Year.

“We’re doing well,” Cindy Hendren, a 15-year International Paper veteran who became the mill manager here last November, said last week. “We’re a small, low-cost producer in the recycled containerboard business. We have a very strong team and a very demanding performance budget that we’re able to consistently meet.”

Twenty-five years later, some of those original employees are still on the job. Of the current workforce of 99 people, 28% have been at the mill since its startup. The former papermaking rookies are now veterans; employees today have been on the job an average of 14.3 years.

Hendren credits the culture of the mill. “It’s just the work environment,” she said. “It’s a flow-to-work team,” meaning employees are cross-trained in various tasks and regardless of their job title, when there is an urgent need in the mill, they help out.

“There’s a lot of teamwork, a lot of collaboration,” Hendren said. “A lot of the guys have worked together since startup and try to help each other and teach one another. There’s just a lot of collaboration between management and hourly teams. We try make sure we’re on the same page; we try to engage everybody as much as possible.”

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Because the enormous paper machine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, employees must work a rotating schedule of 12-hour shifts based on what’s called the DuPont schedule. During a four-week cycle, each crew works four night shifts, takes three days off, works three day shifts, takes one day off, works three night shifts, takes three days off, works four day shifts, then gets seven days off — meaning, effectively, that workers get a seven-day vacation each month.

And when the Henderson Mill workers are scheduled to work, they’re usually on the job; the mill had an absentee rate of 1.03% in 2019 — and so far this year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, that rate has been even lower.

Larry Griffin an environmental and technical manager at International Paper shows historic photographs of the Henderson Mill that was built in 1995 on the Hoge Farm property now known as Henderson Corporate Park on Nov. 9, 2016. The plant makes almost 700 tons of paper a day by using recycled boxes.

“I think the team members, because it’s a small team, they don’t want to let each other down, so everybody tries to help everybody,” Hendren said.

The Henderson Mill pays well, too. “This mill is very competitive” in terms of industrial wages, she said. “The entry level (pay) is very competitive and as you move up in the mill, there is opportunity to be very successful.”

While turnover is low, there are occasional job openings. “We always get a fairly decent number of applicants that we then have to weed out,” she said. “What I like about this mill is that (hourly) employees sit on the interview board. They are selecting the people they feel will be qualified to work within the systems: (possessing) technical ability and work ethic and the ability to flow to work, backing each other up, going to where the opportunities” — or emergencies — pop up.

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“The engagement of this team is just phenomenal,” Hendren said. “It’s a pleasure to work with everybody here.”

The Henderson Mill makes what’s called containerboard used to make corrugated boxes: the smooth linerboard on the interior and exterior of shipping boxes as well as medium, the fluted material inside the two sheets of linerboard.

One-hundred percent of that containerboard is made by recycling old corrugated containers — big bales of flattened used shopping boxes that are collected from supermarkets and other big stores, municipal recycling operations, large manufacturers and others who empty countless boxes each day.

The old boxes are essentially dissolved into a pulpy soup inside an oversized vat; the pulp is processed and fed into the enormous paper machine, which dries the material into a solid sheet that is wound onto giant rolls. In its earliest days, the mill recycled approximately 450 tons of old corrugated boxes per day; today, it produces around 725 tons of containerboard daily.

Virtually all of those rolls are shipped to International Paper plants that specialize in manufacturing corrugated boxes. Most of it goes to IP box plants within a seven- or eight-hour drive, including a plant in Bowling Green, although a significant amount goes to a plant in Anaheim, Calif.

“We have a very strong product in the grades we produce,” Hendren said. “We get very few customer complaints.”

The mill also strives to avoid injuries. “Safety is our No. 1 priority in everything we do,” she said. “It’s not unusual for me to say that there’s not a ton of paper worth a single injury at the mill.”

By the spring of 2016, the mill had run more than three years without an incident that required reporting to OSHA; as of the middle of last week, the mill was approaching one year without a reportable injury.

“In an industry like this, that’s an achievement to be proud of,” Hendren said. “There’s lots of rotating equipment, lots of pinch points. Our (paper) winder runs 5,000 or 6,000 feet a minute. We’re running powered industrial equipment in the warehouse. There’s lots of opportunities for exposure (of potential harm) to employees.”

The Henderson Mill is one of 16 U.S. containerboard mills within International Paper, which is the world’s largest producer of containerboard. IP ranked 144th last year on the Fortune 500 — fittingly, No. 1 and No. 2 are two of the largest consumers of corrugated boxes, Walmart and — and reported more than $22 billion in revenue in 2019 and more than 50,000 employees.

Despite the enormity of the company, Hendren said the Henderson Mill keeps an eye on its community. It has for years partnered to help nearby South Heights Elementary School through various projects, including purchasing Kindle reading devices for classrooms, planting trees around the campus, providing Christmas baskets to students and their families, and having IP volunteers visit the school and chat with kids during Donut with a Grownup events.

It has provided trail signage and helped develop outdoor classrooms at Audubon State Park and provided a grant to enable the Henderson Area Arts Alliance to provide hardback copies of the classic “Charlotte’s Web” to grade schoolers. The company recently donated $15,000 to the Henderson Chamber of Commerce’s Dolly Parton Imagination Library to ship free books to parents so they can read to their preschoolers and promote a love for reading.

Hendren said other organizations can also apply for an International Paper grant by visiting IP’s signature causes include education, hunger, health and wellness, and disaster relief.

During the current pandemic, the Henderson Mill has taken steps such as donating boxes to Henderson County Schools and the Salvation Army for sending prepared meals home to youngsters and the poor. But the coronavirus has interfered with intentions for International Paper to celebrate its mill’s 25th anniversary.

“COVID of course has put some kinks in our plans,” Hendren said. “We actually have a team of employees, hourly and a couple of salaried employees, to come up with a plan for our 25th – a big dinner celebration — but that probably is going to have to be pushed off. But we will absolutely celebrate. We just don’t know exactly what that will look like, and when.”

Local officials are quick to praise the Henderson Mill.

“International Paper has been an important contributor to our community in many ways,” Henderson Mayor Steve Austin said. “Every employee I’ve known from IP has described it as an excellent place to work.

“Additionally, they have been generous to help with educational outreach at South Heights Elementary and Audubon State Park on environmental topics, and they have been a good neighbor in the city’s Corporate Park,” he added. “We could use more industrial partners like International Paper.”

“Every community hopes to have companies that are as engaged in and supportive of local concerns and initiatives as International Paper is here,” Henderson County Judge-executive Brad Schneider said. “Henderson is not just another outpost for them. I think they have liked being here and becoming a stalwart of our industrial sector.

“And I really appreciate how they have helped their neighbors at South Heights School over the years,” Schneider said. “They have made a positive difference in the lives of many students there. It’s hard to ask more of a corporate citizen that that.”

“International Paper is a valued existing industry in our area and a great community partner,” declared Whitney Risley, director of existing industries and workforce development for Henderson Economic Development. “They have devoted a great deal of their efforts on safety and workforce development among their employees, which has been recognized by the retention of their employees. We congratulate International Paper on 25 years in Henderson. We appreciate their involvement and commitment to our area.”

With care, the Henderson mill should be able to celebrate other milestone anniversaries for generations to come.

“This mill is kind of a baby of paper mills in the U.S.,” Hendren said. “It is one of the newer ones. I have worked at mills that are 100 years old.

“As long as we continue to maintain our equipment as we’re supposed to and strive to keep costs down … I’d say this mill could run for 25, 50, 75 years.”