It’s no secret that the paper industry has experienced considerable change over the past 15 to 20 years. As I look back, several positive and negative reasons for the change come to mind, including advancements in digital technologies, environmental factors, rising energy costs, international demand for tissue, and fluff pulp. However, the biggest change was in the leadership throughout the industry – a clear and strategic plan by some, and no perceived plan by others.
This still holds true today. Although I can’t give credit to anyone company (due to the follow-the-leader plan), several major players developed a clear vision to:
- Reduce the competition
- Focus on reducing cost
- Become more environmentally friendly
Those goals, coupled with investments in other well-thought-out technology initiatives, resulted in standardized pricing across the industry and stabilization in the market. Although those actions closed several mills – and even closed the industry in some areas – it was the right thing to do for the industry as a whole.
Today, I see positive trends in capital investments for long-term infrastructure improvement. I see a focus on driving a more community-friendly culture, and a focus on the key performance indicators (environmental, health and safety, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, recycling, etc.) as an industry. These trends are required to establish a sustainable model for the future.
So, Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s a no-brainer that, to be successful long term, we have to balance current needs against future opportunities and continue to focus on balancing supply and demand, both domestically and internationally. In order to stay competitive, we have to look at the cost of energy and increase efficiency in the recovery process.
And we have to plan on how to spend capital dollars wisely. I see too many times that the lack of planning on the front end turns disastrous on the back end of the project. With blown budgets, missed schedules, and careers at risk, there is no reason for this trend to continue. When projects are approached penny-wise and dollar-foolish, everyone suffers. When we look at capital spending projected in the $15B range for 2014 on control upgrades alone – and consider we are overrunning the cost by 20 to 30 percent on some projects – the impact is huge to the industry as a whole.
As with any change in an industry that’s hundreds of years old, there are hurdles driving behavior that can be difficult to overcome. How many times have you heard these reasons for failed projects?
- “We’ve done it this way for years.”
- “That’s a corporate decision.”
- “That responsibility is above my pay grade.”
- “I just do what they tell me.”
The common theme is accountability − and that is where we go from here.