Local mill to celebrate 90 years

It definitely will be a day to remember when Abitibi-Consolidated Company of Canada—Fort Frances Division puts on a party hat this Friday (May 28) in celebration of its 90th year in business here.
The mill will hold a public open house from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at its training centre (located at the corner of Scott Street and Central Avenue), complete with historical exhibits, tours, and a very big cake-cutting ceremony at noon.
“I’m hoping townspeople who maybe have never been on a mill tour, or have never been on [one] since they were school children, will come by for a tour,” mill manager John Harrison said last week.
“And we’re cutting cake with a buck saw—that’s how big it is,” he chuckled.
Harrison also was enthused about the many historical photos and memorabilia—enough to fill two downstairs rooms in the training centre—that will be on display Friday.
“We’ll have one [exhibit] room for logging, to celebrate our time in the forest, and one [exhibit] for the people and the [mill] plant process,” he remarked, making note of the many unidentified workers in photos from the mill’s early days.
“We’re hoping some of the unknown faces can be identified—that somebody will say, ‘Hey that’s Uncle Joe in the 1920s,’” Harrison added. “I hope we can fill some gaps.”
Harrison has been mill manager here for about 18 months after a five-year stint with Abitibi’s value-added paper mill in Thunder Bay. Prior to that, he had been employed with the mill here for 18 years in various capacities.
“I find making paper a fascinating business to be in [and] I take a lot of pride in coming here every day,” he remarked. “I feel very strongly about the mill and the future of it.
“For years we have been one of the premier pulp and paper facilities in North America [and] I really feel strongly motivated that it stay that way,” Harrison stressed.
The key to success, he says, is versatility—a challenge that is not always easy, but one the company has continued to succeed at because of good management and employee teamwork.
“To a great extent now, the key thing has been versatility with our range of specialty products on the paper side. It makes us a valuable one-stop-shop for our customers,” he reasoned.
“That [success] is because over the 90 years, the mill has been managed by people who made good investment decisions,” Harrison continued.
“People that work here have always been adaptable to change, and they keep excelling at making new changes that [help] make us a success.”
Jim McQuarrie of Fort Frances agreed. He retired in 1995 after a 38-year career with the mill, where over that time he had risen up the ranks from junior electrical engineer to assistant to the regional manager.
He’s looking forward to the 90th anniversary to get caught up with what’s been going on over the last nine years.
“One of the big things in [the mill’s] success is the ‘can do’ attitude in developing different kinds of paper,” he noted. “In the late 1940s when it was a Mando mill, the decision was made to convert from newsprint to specialty groundwood printing paper.
“They were one of first to do it and were notably successful. Someone saw the writing on the wall and knew [the mill] had to get out of the business of just making newsprint—that there was better mark up with groundwood based papers.
There is no sense making paper unless you can make a profit and control your costs,” argued McQuarrie. “That’s what they’ve been a leader at—doing more with less.”
Jim Gartshore, a native of Fort Frances and former mill manager here before Harrison, will be among the invited guests at Friday’s 90th anniversary celebration.
Gartshore moved up the corporate ladder 18 months ago to take on the position of vice-president of Energy, Engineering, and Continuous Improvement at Abitibi-Consolidated’s head office in Montreal.
Abitibi has ownership interests in 27 paper mills in North America and around the world. Gartshore has had first-hand tours of the mills, including one in the U.K. and four in Asia, and says Abitibi’s Fort Frances Division is right up there with the best of them.
“I get to see over all the fences and I realize what a great job Fort Frances [division] does on many [fronts],” Gartshore said. “I’m local and I’m proud of the mill and I consider it an honour to have been a part of it— that sounds maudlin, but it’s true.
“And my grandfather, John Evans, worked in that mill in the 1920s, not long after it started up, until the 1950s,” he added. “I have always felt a real strong connection to the place.”