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A Site Selection Web Exclusive, March 2024
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Linerboard Maker Brings New Life to Old Paper Mill in Ashland, Virginia

The plant manager outlines the past, present and future of Canada’s Cascades.

ONLINE INSIDER
Aerial view of the Bear Island linerboard plant for Cascades in Greater Richmond.
Photos courtesy of Cascades

RON STARNER

About 16 miles north of Richmond, Virginia, just off Interstate 95 and U.S. Route 1, narrow Old Ridge Road winds through several miles of forest land before you arrive at Bear Island near the confluence of the Little River and the Pamunkey River.

That’s where you’ll find the entrance to Gate 2 of Cascades Bear Island, a 500,000-sq.-ft. containerboard plant that is one of Cascades’ newest investments in the U.S. With 10,000 employees at 74 plants across North America, the Canadian firm is one of the largest paper recyclers in the world.

On May 2, 2023, Cascades produced its first roll of containerboard at the 819-acre Bear Island site in Ashland, a college town of 8,000 people in Hanover County. Equipped with a new machine, this plant produces lightweight, 100% recycled linerboard and fluting paper for North America. The result of this project is an annual production capacity of 465,000 tons.

The Kingsey Falls, Quebec–based company states that its total investment into Bear Island is $525 million, including $35 million the company paid to White Birch Paper in 2018 to acquire the property. Cascades expects the plant to reach 100% capacity by the end of 2025.

On February 14, I visited this 150-acre industrial complex and sat down with plant manager Mathieu Gendron for an extended conversation.

 


Mathieu_Gendron

 

“The future for us is to expand and create more converting plants in North America.”

Mathieu Gendron, Plant Manager, Cascades Bear Island, Ashland, Virginia

 

 


How did your company come to acquire this plant and decide to repurpose it for the manufacturing of containerboard?

GENDRON: This site was producing newsprint mostly out of virgin fiber. When we acquired it, we knew we would not need any of the virgin fiber facilities. We built a used corrugated container pad that can hold recycling materials for eight days of production. That is the RF building for recycled paper. Fiber is stored there and then transferred to the paper machine building and all the auxiliary equipment required to produce paper. This is new.

We produce recycled linerboard. We add starch to the sheet to stiffen it and strengthen it. The new machine is longer than the old one. We had to rebuild the building higher and longer. This paper then goes into two warehouses where we can store about 16,000 tons of it. We can produce 1,300 tons per day. We need 80 trucks daily. We also ship by rail. We are evaluating every piece of land we have where we can build something for future expansions.

The linerboard market is growing every year by 3 to 4%, and now you have several mills in the U.S. What is driving demand?

GENDRON: Amazon is a good example. Demand is driven by overall consumption. The main driver is the volume of shipments via cardboard boxes. Our boxes are sold to Amazon and other businesses that need this product. It is a circular economy.

Tell me about the history of Cascades.

GENDRON: It was founded in 1964 by three brothers — the Lemaire brothers. One of them lost his job because he fought for women’s rights. This company has always believed in doing the right thing. The brothers decided to collect scrap cardboard and metal. They found a site in Quebec to start a business. They tried using a blender to produce paper. They grew through acquisition. People were attracted by their culture of respect. That is how Cascades eventually grew into a company of 10,000 employees.

Terms

linerboard: a thin cardboard used for the flat facings of corrugated containerboard

fluting paper: the middle, undulating layer of corrugated cardboard

What location factors were most important when you selected Bear Island?

GENDRON: The rail siting; the size of site; the fact that the county was willing to work with us on permitting; the papermakers present; and the fact that we were able to rehire 40 to 50 employees out of the 205 that we have. In fact, we hired 60 to 70% of our workforce 18 months before starting the new plant.

How was the decision made to expand the plant?

GENDRON: We bought this site in 2018 and started engineering in 2019. At the end of 2019, we started construction. We had 1,000 construction workers at peak in 2022. May or June of this year will be the grand opening. We always knew we needed fiber, electricity and steam. We have two boilers in the powerhouse. We consume 10 times less water than a virgin paper mill. We recirculate the water. We always need a small amount of freshwater from the river. We have a very complete water treatment system.

 


DID YOU KNOW?

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck is a graduate of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, home to Cascades Bear Island.


 

Corporate headquarters in Canada made the decision to expand here. We looked at the map and asked — where is the growth? It was close to I-95. There were other sites that could have landed it. We looked at building a greenfield site elsewhere. One in Niagara Falls was considered for this project. The Richmond area was a great fit for this project. This site was perfect in what it offered. We worked with the state and county for the permits. Logistics here are very good. A lot of carriers here go north-south and east-west. We can also ship by water.

Did you encounter any obstacles along the way?

GENDRON: Yes. There was a delay in getting some of our essential building materials. We did not expect that. But, then again, we built the mill in the middle of a pandemic. Concrete was hard to acquire then. There were not enough semi-truck drivers either. Electric cables had supply shortages. We signed the agreement for the main equipment in 2020. The lead time on these things was two years at the time. Fortunately, we were well ahead of the shortages.

What role did incentives play in the deal?

GENDRON: Incentives helped. We received a Commonwealth Opportunity Fund grant. That was the main one. It could always be better. We committed to 145 jobs at an average annual wage of $75,000. Since then, we have created 205 jobs at wages much higher than that. Our total capital investment numbers are higher than what we initially promised as well. In fact, we will almost double the size of the warehouse here.

Where are some of your other plant locations in North America, and do you plan to expand at any of them?

GENDRON: We have 74 total plant sites. We are concentrated in Quebec and Ontario. We have seven paper mills and 29 converting plants. The future for us is to expand and create more converting plants in North America. We are in Rockingham, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Pryor, Oklahoma; and the Pacific Northwest. We have a box plant in Calgary, Alberta, and a converting plant in Richmond, British Columbia. The greatest concentrations of our facilities are around the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest.

We have several mills in Europe that we sold so that we can focus on our North American markets. We used to have plants in Monterrey, Mexico, and in Sweden, Germany, Italy and France. We were too spread around. We needed to understand the intelligence of the market. We decided to focus on North America, and our sales have continued to go up.

Ron Starner
Executive Vice President of Conway, Inc.

Ron Starner

Ron Starner is Executive Vice President of Conway Data, Inc. He has been with Conway Data for 22 years and serves as a writer and editor for both Site Selection and the company's Custom Content publishing division. His Twitter handle is @RonStarner.

  



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