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Mill keeps humming right along after 25 years
kelly wolff 1
Georgia-Pacific Savannah River Mill manager Kelly Wolff started literally from the ground up at the mill 25 years ago. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

From his office overlooking the vast parking lot at Georgia-Pacific’s Savannah River Mill, Kelly Wolff has the job he’s always wanted.

Wolff is the plant manager, but he sees his role in more of a support function to the more than 1,200 employees at the giant mill off Fort Howard Road.

“That’s what keeps me going,” he said of the hundreds of workers who come through the doors each day. “I’m a contractor who works for these employees. My role is to interface with Atlanta and give a direction we can all follow.”

The plant is employee-driven, with employees taking part in decision-making.

“We call them principled entrepreneurs,” Wolff said. “We allow our employees to have ownership of their work processes, then empower them and give them the decision rights. Then we resource them to allow them to be successful.”

And as the plant turns 25 years old, it is positioned well to be a stable force in a turbulent economy.

“We’re maintaining,” Wolff said. “Business is OK.”

The good thing about the plant’s products — which include paper napkins and paper towels, is that if people don’t use them at home, they very well may use them when they are away from home.

“That’s why we’re not as affected by the downturn,” Wolff said. “We’re about a 50-50 split between retail products and commercial products. We’ve been able to maintain pretty well, even with the bad economy.”

Workforce equals success

The Savannah River Mill has enjoyed a very stable workforce, thanks in part to a strong local education system, Wolff said. Forty percent of the workers live in Effingham.

“One of the reasons the mill located here 25 years ago was the education system, the strong schools and the stable workforce,” he said. “And that hasn’t changed, even with all the growth. I give kudos to the folks who have run the education system. Other places I’ve lived that have had this much growth, the school systems are the first to suffer. To keep the quality of education up isn’t that easy. They’ve done a remarkable job. And what a draw that is for the county, which again allows us to have a stronger workforce to draw from.”

But the company’s philosophy— Georgia-Pacific is owned by Koch Indsutries — puts the employees in positions to help guide the company. By making them feel a part of running the company, they’re invested in it and the decision-making.

“The key goes back to ownership,” Wolff said. “Once they own it and they are allowed to run their business like they own it.”

Wolff likens his job to that of a banker — the employees come to him with ideas to make products better or easier, and he lends them the resources to make those ideas happen.

“Is that going to generate enough revenue to pay the interest and the principal back? They stop and think about it,” he said. “They think as business owners every day. That’s the exciting part.”

The mill is using a process that was first suggested by employees after other attempts failed. After three tries, they got it right, and it’s now in use throughout the line.

“As products reach their maturity, we’re already developing something new,” Wolff said.

“We’re developing that next new innovation. At our mill, our folks have been developing an unbleached towel. It was our employees that came up with the idea on how to do it. When we did the initial trials, it didn’t work. After about three tries, they nailed it. So we’ll be able to start making emulsion towels here.”

Learning curve for the workforce

As technology has expanded and developed exponentially, the workforce has had to adapt. So has the mill.

“The job has come away from being heavy, hard labor,” Wolff explained. “The strong back isn’t what you look for anymore. The ability to solve problems and rationally think through and work in teams is the way you do it.”

Instead of forklift trucks and drivers criss-crossing through the maze of pallets of paper towels and other products on the expansive warehouse floor, there are 32 laser-guided vehicles.

“Now you need people to be able to maintain those vehicles and monitor those vehicles,” Wolff said.

There’s also a very technical side with the environmental regulations the mill has to follow. There’s air sampling, water sampling and seeing how much chemistry the mill is using, Wolff said. The mill’s connection with the school system comes into play when getting prospective workers ready for the mill’s demands.

“We have continuous training and upgrading of our folks’ skills. You have to have that base,” Wolff said. “One thing with partnering with the schools, the folks coming out of school know it’s not just, ‘hey, I graduated, I can go get a job at the mill.’”

Partnering with the schools, and the community, is a tenet of the mill’s operation. The mill started working with local schools a few years after it opened, and the relationship has been strong since.

Invested in the community

Wolff credited Carrie Thompson, the mill’s public affairs manager, for guiding the plant’s efforts in the schools and in the community and coming up with ideas and initiatives that impact both the community and the workforce.

“When you look at the good companies and what they do, they recognize how important partnering with the schools are, partnering with the communities are,” Wolff said.

United Way is also a big focus of the mill, and Wolff noted that organization constantly tries to identify issues in the community and stop them from growing into larger problems.

“From a community standpoint, that’s what we’re trying to do, making sure that our community stays the way it needs to be and that we’re investing in our future, which is our children,” Wolff said.

Thompson also pointed out that the mill expends energy in being a steward of the land it occupies and the land around it. The Savannah River Mill sits on a 2,200-acre site, including a wildlife habitat of almost 150 acres, maintained by its wildlife team.

The habitat is home to beavers, southern leopard frogs, slender glass lizards and gopher tortoises, which are on the threatened species list. The mill has a wildlife management plan that focuses on nesting and feeding habitats for birds and bats and managing forests for gopher tortoises. It also has environmental education through its Wildlife Habitat Council’s Wildlife at Work program.

On the mill’s grounds are: 18 reptile and amphibian species, 134 species of birds, 26 insect species, 94 trees and plant species and 12 different species of mammals. The mill also has teamed with South Effingham High School to build 30 wood duck boxes to put on the wildlife habitat site.

The wildlife isn’t alone in the mill’s shepherding — along with the National Wild Turkey Federation, the mill replanted 100 acres of longleaf pine, using 48,000 seedlings, almost two years ago. The mill also has two universities studying biomass harvesting guidelines on 125 acres. The three-year study is almost halfway through.

And in what may make all its neighbors happy — the mill is working to eliminate its smell. It has received final approval for its landfill, where it deposits its sludge.

“And to be honest, it has a bit of an odor to it,” Wolff admitted. “That’s an issue, obviously.”

What the mill plans to do is completely encapsulate 64 acres to capture the gases that emit from the sludge and then incinerate those gases. That will take place over the next year.

“We’re doing final engineering,” Wolff said. “It’s a big job. But again, it’s a big investment the company has made to ensure we’re a good corporate citizen.”

An investment in the mill

Having a mill run continuously — there are two 12-hour shifts and the plant is running 365 days a year, 24 hours a day — means having to keep the machinery up to date and running.

“Once you see the size of the equipment and the capital cost, you run this stuff,” Wolff said. “A paper machine at $250 million you don’t put in just so you can go home on the weekends.”

An average of 120 tractor-trailer loads a day of products roll out of the Savannah River Mill.

“We do a lot,” Wolff said.

There are five phases to the mill, and by 1989, they had gone through three of those phases, said Wolff, who was part of the building of the plant. The fourth phase was finished in the mid 1990s and the fifth one was completed in the early 2000s. The mill was designed to be a five-phase facility.

“It’s nice to see how the facility has come together,” he said. “We reinvest a bunch in our facilities and the older equipment is maintained very well. It’s a good looking facility with a very solid feel.”

Wolff compared the mill to a vehicle. After 25 years, a pickup truck will look pretty worn, he noted. “How does the equipment not look that way? I think that’s a tribute to a couple of things. One is our reinvestment and the Koch influence. We re-invest over 90 percent of our returns, our profits, back into the business.”

From the mill’s North American consumer products business, the level of profits re-invested back into the business is about 93 percent, according to Wolff.

The company has made a $3 million investment for an upgrade to its tissue production line and there has been a pulp expansion, a $30 million investment that allows the mill to use waste paper that is more readily available and a little harder to process.

“We had four systems and took one completely out and rebuilt,” Wolff said.

Wolff pointed to a focus on reliability as to how the mill’s machinery and process lines are continuing to hum along.

“How do we keep equipment that’s been here 25 years do so well? You don’t let it fall apart,” he said, continuing the analogy to a motor vehicle. “The engines get replaced every so often, the hydraulic systems get replaced every so often. You change the components to keep it working like it did the day you bought it.”

As the facility has matured, there also are employees who are marking their 25th year with the mill.

“We now have people with 25 years who have worked here since the start, people who have been here since they turned the first shovel of dirt,” Wolff said. “It’s a stable, quality, hard-working group of people.”

Feeling right back at home

Wolff’s career started at the Savannah River Mill 25 years ago, and he’s been hoping to get back since the day he was transferred.

“I lost hope a couple of times,” he said, “but when they asked me, I was real excited. I’ve been wanting to come back ever since I left.”

Wolff, who grew up in Wisconsin’s dairy country, worked in Green Bay and one of his friends there showed him a nickel he had laid in the concrete as it dried at that plant.

That gave him an idea 25 years ago.

“I just happened to have a penny in my pocket,” he said. “They were pouring some fresh concrete, so behind one of the I-beams, I stuck the penny in the concrete. Shortly after that, I got transferred away. I thought, ‘that is going to bring me back.’”

Wolff is building a home in Dasher Landing and hopes to move in by the end of the year. His first time at the mill, he was busy with a young family and spending nearly every waking moment writing training manuals, hiring people and inspecting equipment to get the plant off the ground.

“When you think about it, my career was really jump-started here,” he said. “We were real excited about coming back.”

Since his departure, there have been changes to Rincon and Effingham County. Some of its qualities that endeared the community to him the first time, however, haven’t been altered.

“One of the things I noticed when I came back was the explosive growth of Effingham County. There’s more of a mixture. I don’t think it’s changed all that much,” Wolff said. “It’s a nice, quiet hometown where people are friendly and they look out for each other. That’s why it’s a nice place to live.”

When he was first sent to the bare patch of dirt that became the giant mill, there wasn’t anyplace to live nearby.

“I ended up living in Pooler,” he said. “We had 3,000 construction workers at one time building the facility.”

At one time, the Savannah River Mill was the largest tissue mill in the world, but it’s still considered a prize Georgia-Pacific facility.

“‘You want to manage the Savannah River Mill. That’s the pinnacle of your career,’” Wolff recalled of what his mentors in the company told him. “I can now say I ran the flagship of the company. Maybe saying being part of the team is a better way. No wonder I can smile.”