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Gorham mill's new CEO aims for niche market

Special to the Union Leader

May 25. 2013 1:52AM
Michael Cummings is the new chief executive officer of Gorham Paper and Tissue, a mill that reopened in 2011. (SARA YOUNG-KNOX)

GORHAM - On a recent dreary morning, a tractor-trailer truck with out-of-state plates pulled out of the yard of the Gorham Paper and Tissue mill, making a wide swing as it turned on to street.

A little more than two years ago, there weren't any trucks taking product out of the mill, and there was a really good chance there never would be again, and that the property would end up like its sister mill just up the Androscoggin River. The pulp mill in Berlin was basically sold for scrap, most of it torn down, though the last stack and its boiler are getting a second life as Burgess BioPower.

The truck is a positive sign for the Gorham mill, which last fall brought a new tissue machine online, which represents a $35 million capital investment, operating under White Mountain Tissue LLC.

A positive sign, too, is the hiring of a separate CEO for the Patriarch Partners' company. Previously, Gorham shared Maine's Old Town Fuel and Fiber chief executive, Dick Arnold.

On Wednesday, new CEO Michael Cummings had been on the job seven days and was still familiarizing himself with some of the history of the mill, which reopened in 2011. But he was up-to-date on the status of the new machine.

"It's running seven days a week, so we're in the advanced start-up curve. We're producing tissue," Cummings said.

Cummings was recruited for the new job, coming to the company from Thermo Fisher Scientific, where he was director of global operations for its slides and specialty glass unit. In that position, he traveled worldwide, but was based in Portsmouth.

"They (Patriarch) were looking for somebody with industry experience," Cummings said. His military background - he was in ROTC at Cornell University and then served five years active duty - was a plus. "Lynn Tilton has a good relationship with the military," Cumming said.

He credited Tilton, founder and CEO of Patriarch Partners, for trying to save American manufacturing. "That's a fundamental reason why I'm here," Cumming said.

Prior to his stint at Thermo Fisher Scientific, Cummings was chief operations officer of the consumer division of Crane & Co. He was senior vice president of the Newark Group, which manufactures paperboard and packaging. He also has a MBA from Harvard Business School.

He's no stranger to northern New Hampshire. He and his family volunteer extensively with New England Disabled Sports at Loon Mountain. The organization provides year-round adaptive sport instruction, including water sports at Squam Lake.

Last year, he took part in the Three Notch Century, a 100-mile bicycle ride through the White Mountains. The event is a fundraiser for the Northeast Passage program, which provides disability-related health promotion and adapted sports programs in New England.

"We value the North Country a lot," Cummings said. "This is an important business for Gorham."

The paper industry as a whole peaked in the early 2000s, as the growing use of technology cut back on the need for writing and printing paper. For the most part, cardboard and packaging went overseas to China, where they make their own packaging for the products they ship. The U.S. does export recycled paper to that country, which uses it as pulp, the raw product in paper manufacturing.

The tissue market, however, is still growing. Cummings said he's responsible for the bottom line and to the stakeholders, both the community and the mill's customers and suppliers.

He said they want to do business with customers that want a relationship with a flexible, high-quality business-to-business mill. The 200-plus Gorham workers produce huge rolls of paper, tissue and towel, which their customers convert into finished products.

"We're a young company," Cummings said. The challenge is finding a niche, and the right markets and customer selections within that market niche. Besides tissue and towel, the mill produces specialty packaging, engineered and printing papers.

Cummings said the company's sales and marketing staff have done a great job. A recent news release from the company mentioned a 23 percent increase in year-over-year sales volume, "due to an enhanced energy platform, newly installed state-of-the-art tissue machine and sharpened focus on delivering engineered products for demanding niche applications."

Gorham Selectman Paul Robitaille worked in the mills for many years, losing his job in 2001 when the then-mill owners, American Tissue, declared bankruptcy. The Berlin and Gorham mills were bought out of bankruptcy court by Fraser Papers in 2002. Fraser closed the Berlin pulp mill in 2006, and in 2010, during the company's bankruptcy, closed the Gorham mill.

"We like Gorham Paper & Tissue as a partner. We like working with them," Robitaille said. "I think they've had a long, hard road coming back and getting customers, but from what I can see, management seems to be going in the right direction."

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