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Finch Paper CEO Deba Mukherjee upbeat update

Editor’s note: The Chronicle interviewed Finch Paper president and CEO Deba Mukherjee, along with Chief Financial Officer Alex Rotolo and vice president of human resources Tracey Riley, on Aug. 20. Finally here’s meaty stuff from that interview.

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Finch Paper president and CEO Deba Mukherjee told The Chronicle (in August): “Maybe it’s time to give you an update on us. I’ve been here since 2013, and over the last six and a half years, there have been a number of changes that I wanted to talk about.

Finch Paper CEO Deba Mukherjee

“We have diversified our product line. We’ve brought in a lot of talented individuals. We have invested a lot here. We modernized the wood yard. We automated our pulping systems. We have put in a brand new head box on the #4 paper machine. We put in a digital sheeter. We upgraded our digital machines. We put in an automated paper process in our #3 paper machine.

“From front to back, we have adjusted a lot so we can be relevant in the next 50 years. And we have essentially created a sales group and a customer base which is second to none. That’s all the work that has happened to this point.

“And now with the French Paper partnership, what we are doing is basically expanding the product offerings to things we don’t make, the uncoated free sheet space. [Finch Paper Holdings acquired French Paper Company in Niles, Michigan, owned by the French family for 147 years.]

“And so looking forward, we are probably the only mill or mill system that can make almost every product that is used in different markets. Whether it’s colors, wet strand, digital, packaging.

“Think about all different types of markets, which is important because the market overall is still declining, so our ability to be in all of these markets — there are a few markets that are growing, the majority are declining — so our ability to be in all of hese markets with a team that is second to none with a well-capitalized asset with a strong balance sheet is the key to long-term success in an industry that is shutting down around us.”

Mr. Mukherjee urged that tariffs be applied to foreign papermakers.

“Absolutely. They are needed. Paper is no different than steel or aluminum. It’s all of the companies are located in mill towns like ours. They are in small-town America all over the country, and they are shutting down. And so, there is a huge need to do something.

It’s not fair trade, by the way, because the environmental regulations are not the same in Indonesia as they are here. The OSHA regulations aren’t the same as they are here. There is an enormous necessity to do that, and it hasn’t happened. And really, the proof is, mills are shutting down at a fast clip, all over small-town America. And that needs to change.

Mr. Mukherjee said that attracting workers is a key continuing challenge.

I think we have to make manufacturing attractive in terms of people’s lives and careers. It’s one of the highest paying professions.

I think there’s a lot of focus on smart technology. We have to make traditional manufacturing, which has a lot of smart technology in it, be very attractive to younger people. We used to make a lot of things. We need to remake a lot of things, and I think that’s part of our success, historically, has been making things, and to a large extent, I think that needs to happen again.

And that will solve a lot of issues with respect to younger people wanting to do this type of work and being successful for the long term. Because I think as manufacturing has declined in small towns, we have lost the experience base, and there’s not enough coming in to replace the experience base. That’s important.

Mr. Mukherjee called for an investment in infrastructure.

If I may, there’s a third area that needs some level of focus, and it’s infrastructure. When we talk about young people coming and long-term sustainability, we need to make sure that people recognize the infrastructure that is necessary, whether it’s small business or pipeline or energy or electrical infrastructure.

You talk about infrastructure, that’s important for sustainability for a manufacturing community like ours. And I think we need to invest more in these types of infrastructure to make sure we are sustainable for the long term and are an attractive place and that we are successful for the long term.

He elaborated, “In the winter, we don’t have an adequate supply of natural gas.” He also called for “improving the grid infrastructure.”

As for employment levels at Finch Paper, Mr. Mukherjee said, “It has been stable around 600 overall, give or take. We’ve been stable for the last five years. And look, this is a great accomplishment for the entire management team and the employees here. That’s not what most employers would be able to claim.”

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