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International Paper seeks buyer for mill employing 750

Hundreds of workers in Natchez face uncertain future

NATCHEZ — A community where many people were already concerned about the lack of adequate numbers of industrial jobs is facing having its largest industrial plant, owned by International Paper (IP), put up for sale.

IP, which has 750 employees in Natchez, has announced plans to sell the chemical cellulose operation and mill. The product manufactured at the Natchez IP mill is high quality pulp used in photo film, rayon, cellophane, acetate yarns, sausage casings, specialty papers and other products. The Natchez mill is the only provider of high purity pulp within IP.

The decision to divest of the IP mill comes after IP’s recent purchase of another paper company, Champion International, in a $7-billion deal. Following the purchase, IP announced it would divest more than $3 billion in assets that no longer fit its long-term strategic objectives.

The chemical cellulose operation is not considered part of IP’s core business, which includes coated paper, containerboard and bleach board.

Jim Matheson, general manager of the chemical division of IP that includes the cellulose operation, said that the company believes the Natchez mill will be very attractive to another company where there is a better strategic fit.

“We understand this announcement will create uncertainty for chemical cellulose employees and their families, so we will do all we can to assist employees with any issues that arise during the exploratory period,” Matheson said. “We will explore our options as quickly and efficiently as possible. At this time, we do not know how long this process will take. It is premature to speculate on any outcomes.”

Matheson said the best business strategy for the chemical cellulose employees is to continue to focus on exceeding customers’ expectations.

Steve Olsen, manager of the Natchez mill, said he believes that the mill will be attractive to potential buyers because it has a strong market share position, dedicated employees and a good safety and environmental record combined with a modern, well-maintained facility.

Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority (EDA) deputy director Andrew Ketchings said the community is concerned about the potential economic impact from changes at the mill.

“The community is naturally apprehensive about it because IP has been such a great corporate citizen, and has employed so many of our citizens now for 50 years,” Ketchings said. “I was assured that they have no intention of closing the mill no matter what happens. They just don’t feel like they are a major player any more in the dissolved pulp market. The mill still does very well for them.”

Ketchings said IP believes they will attract a buyer for the plant.

“We just hope that the buyer will be the same type of corporate citizens that IP has been,” he said. “Of course, you always worry about layoffs and things like that. But I don’t think that has to happen.”

The Natchez mill will be marketed primarily by IP. Ketchings said the EDA will provide any assistance requested providing information about the local area.

Stephanie Hutchins, chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, said there is a lot of concern about the mill being put up for sale especially considering that IP has provided one of the better wage and benefit packages in the area. Also, she said many businesses in the community are impacted by the millions of dollars worth of purchases made by the IP mill each year.

Robert Russ, who heads the Co-Lin Small Business Development Center, agreed that the direct loss of 750 jobs isn’t the only concern. He said everyone from truck drivers to local retail outlets could be impacted if the plant were closed or if a new owner reduces the work force.

The issue of industrial development was key to the recent race for mayor of Natchez. Challengers in the race said not enough has been done to attract higher-paying industrial jobs to Natchez.

F.L. “Hank” Smith, who said his number one goal as mayor would be to attract new industrial development and jobs, defeated incumbent Mayor Butch Brown in the recent election. Smith said it wasn’t enough to promote tourism in Natchez, and that the city’s population had been declining and sales tax revenues were down. Smith said he would make attracting new jobs and industry his top priority.

Smith was not available for comment prior to the deadline for this issue.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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