Friday, May 30
by Mathieu Régnier, Paper Advance
On the final day of the Conference, the PACWEST coverage team met Gerry Murray, Vice-President, Mills, Atlantic Packaging. PAPTAC Councilor.

Gerry Murray resides in Toronto and has been involved in the pulp and paper industry for almost 40 years. An electrical engineer by training, he had a multifaceted career. He was a paper machine superintendent, a production manager as well as a mill manager. Today, he is Vice-President, Mills of Atlantic Packaging.

Reflecting on his experience at the conference, he explains, that year after year, he travels west to attend this event for the chance “to meet with mill executives faced with challenges of common interest - all with very practical repercussions on production”. This was especially important for him this year as Atlantic Packaging recently upgraded its Whitby mill in Ontario to produce high-performance corrugated and lightweight packaging products.

What are some of the most valuable elements that you got from this week’s discussions?

Some of the regional perspectives on issues of common concerns that I gathered from my week here shed a new light on challenges we face in Ontario. The realities are different in the East.

The Mill Managers and Senior Executives meeting held on the first day is certainly one of the highlights in my perspective. Being able to discuss freely (this is a closed meeting) about different industry strategies allows us to learn a lot in a very short period of time. A good ROI! Exchanges held this week will enhance my company's industrial practices in many subtle but certain ways.

Health and safety discussions are probably one of the biggest take away from this week one-on-one talks. On another note, discussions on effective relationship building with labor unions can certainly better the working environment in our facilities and I had a couple of good discussions on this as well. This is not new of course but through discussion we learn about best practices to enhance our relationships with employees and communities. The human factor, some framed it as “human capital”, is certainly a recurrent theme of this week’s discussion. It was especially the case during the Conference Forum on Thursday.

What would you say are common preoccupations from mill managers across the table?

We talked about things that have affected mill productivity over the past few months. There is nothing that attracted my attention specifically but I notice a great interest on people and skills management. Recruitment and training are two other concerns we are all faced with in the context of the industry’s workforce renewal. A great challenge from coast to coast! Still, in this region of Canada, competition with the oil and gas industry was highlighted. This is something we may very well be facing in Ontario and the East in the years to come. Skilled workers are very mobile.

Any solutions you can bring back home to share with your co-workers?

Plenty! Let me just focus on one example. Through discussions we had at the beginning of the week, I realized that a colleague from a western-Canada mill recently installed a piece of equipment that we are thinking of installing back home in Ontario. I am now convinced that we should move ahead. I made a personal contact that will allow us to ease the transition process and I can now benchmark the idea against an existing one. This illustrates how the PACWEST Conference keeps us up to date with new technologies, market trends and techniques. There is indeed plenty useful information we can all bring back to our companies.

There was an international flavor to the meeting this year. Did this appeal to you?

An outside perspective is great. It provides different views on common challenges. Some solutions can be applied in our own context; others simply cannot because of different social systems, demographics or economies. A participant from New Zealand explained how his company changed human resources practices in relation to the average age of the employees – 62. This involves various changes in a mill’s culture. We can think of safety issues, crewing in the context of increased absences, pension plans, etc. PACWEST 2014 gave me the opportunity to meet experts and professionals from different parts of the world but again, I believe one doesn’t always have to go very far to learn! The western-Canada perspective on the industry is already a huge plus for an Ontarian like me!

With the 100th Anniversary of PAPTAC in 2015, what is your take on the current state of the industry and its most important needs if we consider the recent successes of regional conferences such as PACWEST and the Atlantic Branch?

The PAPTAC meeting used to be the industry’s main social event. It was and still is a huge industry gathering but the dynamics have changed since the economic slowdown. Today, the industry is becoming more and more focused on the organization of events, which deliver directly relevant take-home elements. If we take the examples of PACWEST or PaperWeek, we observe a trend towards programs filled with social and networking events but also programs from which you can learn on new technology, scientific applications or management ideas that can be implemented right away. They allow companies to stay up to date in areas of relevance to their daily operations.

In this context, I believe paper companies should send more technical people to build critical mass and, to use the terms of today’s keynote speaker (Jim Bottomley), to create innovation clusters. One must remember that the pulp and paper industry is a player in the high tech economy and high tech involves collaborative work and open minds. As such, PAPTAC should continue to play an important role. To me, the association is all about technical leadership and should keep this focus in the years to come.