116. Idea – A look inside the Pulp and Paper Industry Transcript

Hussain: 00:00 

So from my experience, the work and life balance is, has been great. I get to focus on the things I really enjoy at work and at the same time, focus on family, school, work, what have you, outside of work and uh, you know, it offers the opportunity to work with great people very knowledgeable team members locally, globally, and on a national and international level. 

Chris: 00:21 

Welcome to EECO Asks Why a podcast that dives into industrial manufacturing topics, spotlights zeroes to keep America running. I’m your host, Chris Grainger. And on this podcast, we do not cover the latest features and benefits on products that come to market, instead, we focus on advice and insight from the top minds of industry because people and ideas will be how America remains number one in manufacturing in the world. 

Welcome EECO Asks Why today we have an idea episode and we’re going to be taking a look inside the pulp and paper industry.

And this is a special one for me I spent a lot of years supporting pulp and paper across the Virginia and Carolinas, loved the industry. Very excited to have with Hussain Al-Khalaf who is the capital project manager at International Paper. So welcome Hussain.

Hussain: 01:13 

Hey, thank you. 

Chris: 01:15 

Hey sir. What mill are you at there at International Paper?

Hussain: 01:18 

Savannah mill. 

Chris: 01:19 

Okay. Savannah, I have not been to that one, but have to get down there sometime. I’m sure it’s beautiful in that area. 

Hussain: 01:25 

Yeah. It is actually we’re lucky. It’s one of the the mills within the IP fleet that is located in the beautiful city. 

Chris: 01:32 

Oh yeah, no doubt, man. I support a lot of the mills. Well, like I said, across the Southeast, and I always enjoy going to the pulp and paper mills. And there may be that there may be listeners out there who don’t know about this industry Hussain. So maybe could you give a little brief overview of what the pulp and paper industry covers? 

Hussain: 01:51 

I, like we said Savannah mill is one of International Papers fleet mills IP is the largest pulp and paper manufacturer in the world. They employ about 60,000 employees worldwide. We have mills in US Canada, China, Turkey, and I believe Poland, but primarily the business serves or produces printing paper, corrugated paper, pulp, packaging boxes, sleds, hygiene products. And um, the paper even goes into the furniture and countertop manufacturing, flooring and other uses like I said Savannah is located in a beautiful prime location in a city, in the heart of the city of Savannah. So we contribute to the smell a lot and we clean up their water.

Chris: 02:31 

Right. Right. So how long have you been at that IP mill? 

Hussain: 02:35 

At Savannah? Since May of 2017. 

Chris: 02:39 

Very cool. Very cool. Since Very cool. Very cool. So, I mean, since you know, 2017, you’ve been into pulp and paper, what’s been the most significant changes that you’ve seen over the last, say three to five years? 

Hussain: 02:53 

I can speak for IP from what my research and what is available publicly. IP has been executing programs and projects that mainly focuses on reducing costs become more environmentally friendly, reduce competition and balance the needs against future opportunities. Also IP continue to focus on balancing supply and demand on a domestic and the international level, which is growing at a strategic pace, albeit the industries is morphing changing and developing, making this industry go through changes that have never been seen before due to the different sustainable applications that paper is being applied to.

And as far as your question about the, what do I see coming over the next five years? This paper industry is not going away. Um, you know, looking back at the sales since 1960s paper as a commodity did not lose value demand for paper has been on a trajectory since the sixties.

Therefore, I see demand and sales, continuing to rise for many reasons to name a few primarily for now since the past a year and a half ever since the pandemic that online sales something that we’ve seen a spike in the US primarily uh, therefore, if you buy a package online, most likely about 78 to 80% that the package will be delivered in a paper box. 

Chris: 04:07 

Yeah, no doubt that B to C that’s driving that industry. I mean that, like you mentioned how many people on Amazon or just buying packages online. And just think about all those little boxes that show up on our doorsteps now, they come from the industry that you serve and serve at a high level. I mean that demand is definitely going up, 

Hussain: 04:26 

Correct. Yes.

Chris: 04:28 

Very good. Very good. So it sounds like an exciting time to be in the pulp and paper man. So you’re enjoying it? 

Hussain: 04:34 

Loving it so far. I really liked what I do, especially the project management aspect is it’s an ever challenging ever changing um, postion, every day is a new day.

Chris: 04:42 

No doubt. No doubt. I know when we were brainstorming before you were talking about data collection or with the machines and the projects you were working with there. So maybe could you give us a little insight about how that data collection is being used to make those better decisions at the moment?

Hussain: 04:58 

Yeah. As as people say data mining is the new gold, gold mining or mine it, don’t bury it. You’ve probably heard that quite some time for a few times now applies to any fast-paced production environment. We use software to collect data for analysis to approve concepts. You know, the data, tell a story.

And not only for a maintenance folks, useful in troubleshooting uh, activities or them performing the day-to-day PM activities. But rather data is used to state of business case as we develop products that prove a concept to management why use this alternative versus the other, and back our recommendations with credible data, 

Chris: 05:34 

Right. That sounds good, man. I mean, you know, technology is changing so much too, Hussain, you hear the industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing and the IIOT and all those types of buzzwords that are out there, I’m sure you’re very familiar with them. How are you seeing that impact quality cause that technology is definitely raising that level of capability within these plants. So just curious any ties to improvement in quality as that technology has advanced? 

Hussain: 06:01 

Yeah, we continue to look for, what are the sister mills have been doing. We consultant with our corporate technology team engineering and partners, defining technologies to employ our mills that will either reduce our costs increase our quality or automate our processes or equipment.

You know improvement projects are mainly our more prevalent on the paper manufacturing side the money maker. There’s not much, or I shouldn’t say there’s not much, but there’s not a lot of focus on their utilities departments, the fiber generation, it’s more on the moneymaker, the paper machine.

Paper-making is a science and you can go to school and that, and companies in incorporation are exploring avenues to reduce costs and put quality and produce product that is repeatable, sustainable, and competitively priced, like to be able to do that and machines that were built in the forties and fifties have to be retrofitted with technology to make that happen.

Chris: 06:54 

Right. Now,are those are the types of projects and things that your work with as the capital project manager there? I mean, trying to bring that technology on to the machines that have some age on them. 

Hussain: 07:06 

Yes. Old machines cause the corporation would want to not spend money then on the machine, but retrofit existing machine with to, to be able to either increase throughput or make a different product line or what have you.

Chris: 07:20 

And I’m sure that can be stressful. I used to do a lot of service work with the pulp and paper industry. I know a lot of that work is done during machine down days and outages and things like that. So I’m imagining the level of coordination if you want to bring in new tech, you know, implement it, proof tested and be ready to bring it online when that machines is called to run. I’m sure that the pressure can be up at times. 

Hussain: 07:43 

Very much. Very much. Yes. 

Chris: 07:46 

That’s fun stuff though, man. I mean, I thoroughly that the machine down days, I remember those the most, we would have eight to 10 hours, sometimes 12 hours to do maintenance that we were doing. And it was very clear. We better be done with that maintenance when they were called to, to press go on that machine. 

Hussain: 08:03 

They’re running you out.

Chris: 08:05 

That’s right. That’s right. Absolutely. So maybe talk to- we love to talk and share with our listeners about headwinds, to let people understand about what’s out there somewhere for capital project manager standpoint, what headwinds do you run into that people could learn from? 

Hussain: 08:23

Yeah, I call them challenges maybe a surprise, the happy ones. Yeah. Yeah, nothing comes easy and especially when you’re working with people with different personalities, age groups and experiences, project management is not particularly difficult. It all hinders on, on the project managers approach, demeanor, conduct. It’s what you do and how you lead your team to achieving a goal because none of your teammates report to you directly, right? In an, a project size environment you hire people and you employ people to achieve a goal, or achieve a vision and it’s short term. So there are three constraints to any project. Now, obviously there’s schedule or time constraints, the scope and the budget, and everyone from the project team to upper management isn’t comfortable when project does not meet scope, or our time or budget.

Uh, there’s a lot of risk associated with developing and executing any project as far as headwinds are or in my interpretations or as challenges are common to every project that can, the three constraints I mentioned. It’s like a clear lack of clear goals and definition of success of the success criteria and asking all the why’s, the what’s and how’s, once you have a clear picture, then you could frame up your, their scope, know what you’re executing.

And then lack of efficient and effective communication across team members and stakeholders, particularly challenging in an environment where there’s a lot of turnover in personnel management, especially for projects that span over multiple years. If you can imagine people change, people have different ideas, business change so there will be some gaps there and risks associated with all that. 

And then in that inadequate skills or not the right skillset selected for the project team, lack of accountability of team members, limited engagement of stakeholders, all of that I mentioned. And if you are a very common happenings in projects and I’ve witnessed how each can impact the project and cause the project to shut down or severely impact budget and schedule. 

Chris: 10:23 

Sure. I guess when I was thinking, when you were going through a lot of those points, from a schedule scope, budget standpoint, not having clear definition of the goals, communication, I’m picturing you as like the primary point person to create alignment with a lot of different peoples in a different groups to understand, what’s at stake, what’s expected and to ultimately get there as the project manager. So I guess that culture and creating that alignment between multiple teams is a pretty important. 

Hussain: 10:54 

Yeah. Yeah. Certainly because early stage of development not a lot of people have any stake in that idea. They haven’t seen it come up to fruition. They only know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there sometimes. 

Chris: 11:06 

Exactly. Exactly. You talked earlier about the increase in demand that pulp and paper has seen, particularly since the pandemic, more online shopping that B to C environment is just going through the roof right now as consumers are buying differently, just that behavior shifting. So, you know, with COVID, how has that actually impacted the pulp and paper industry? What have you had to change from operations or quality or just standpoint in general just to run a paper mill? 

 Hussain: 11:35 

Like any business around the globe everyone suffered from this setback. IP was deemed, thankfully, IP was deemed as an essential employer because of the products we make and we continue to fully operate during the pandemic, it was a tough, challenging, but we hopefully we’re coming out of the weeds. We are through the thick of it. And we continued to follow CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of our team members is a number one priotirty. 

Chris: 11:59 

Yeah. Yeah. Hats off to you guys. I mean, you’re definitely essential. All of us here at EECO Asks Why definitely believe that. And I know it hasn’t been easy, but you guys are doing a phenomenal job, and Hussain, we try with the the show here to inspire people and to give them insight to these industries and pulp and paper is such a awesome industry to consider and maybe speak to the young person out there that wants to do this, thinking about it that maybe they know about a paper mill, they are thinking about studying and tried to enter it. What advice would you offer them up? 

Hussain: 12:32 

All right. First advice is prepare to get dirty and smelly. On a serious note , we all know that the paper industry smell but that’s the smell of money as we call it. IP promotes the reason why I’m still with IP is because they promote a healthy work-life balance.

If you if you’re looking for an opportunity to make a difference that’s to say there’s room to work on projects that will improve throughput and quality if that excites you. If how you’d like to work on maintenance projects replacement of old outdated equipment with new, building structures, office buildings, substations, automating, robotics, you name it, anything can be done. Anything can be applied at a mill and an older led it to little, all the mill. If you’re interested in a fast speed work environment structure and challenge then IP might be the right fit or place for you. I work with great people with a track record of accomplishments. I’ve had the pleasure and fortunate to have met and worked with many awesome people so far so. 

Chris: 13:31 

That’s great advice for people that want to come. It’s definitely a fun industry. You mentioned so many different things all the way down to robotics, and people may not think about that opportunity when you’re thinking about pulp and paper, but it does exist. And one thing I would just remember so much about all the different mills I would go to. It’s just the team atmosphere and in every mill and how that worked. And you started off about the the advice you mentioned about the smell and but I always call it the smell of money too my friend, that was it. It’s, good. 

And I have some funny stories around that, but we’ll save that for another time, but how about debunk something, man? So the people think about pulp and paper. There’s things that just pop into your mind and you talked about getting dirty, so maybe other there’s some some myths or some stigmas out there that people may have that you’d like to just knock out the park here, man?

Hussain: 14:20 

Yeah, a couple a couple of things pulp and paper industry is antiquated. I’d say certainly not with the amount of product that is being produced and, the market growth that only Savannah had seen in the past three years. Uh, I’m, I’m certain that portrays a different story.

Uh, If you still want Amazon to deliver your boxes or the packages in the box that are, that offers a solution that is environmentally friendly. Then our business needs to focus on quality and efficiency and continue offering competitive quality product to achieve that. Our innovation department working hard to empower mills around the world with technology to do just that. So the business is not antiquated or all going away. 

Another um, myth that I’d like todebunk is pulp and paper is not environmentally friendly. I’d also say certainly not. The paper industry has taken great strides to reduce waste and increase efficiency over the years. IP promotes sustainable forest management policies not to mention that inventories on private timber lands have increased nearly 7% over the last few years. Uh, Some waste products like linen are being used to generate power. In fact, close to 70% of the waste is turned back into energy in this industry.

And about 65% of the fiber brought to the recycling center and gets reused. Uh, The energy machine and conservation are both very important to paper mills, not only because of their environmental impact, but also because it increases profitability for the mill itself. 

Chris: 15:43 

No doubt, I was not aware of that a lot of those statistics that you just went through and but you’re right. There’s so many things from an environmental standpoint, it’s not just a paper mill either. Just think about the loggers and the people in the field, on the forest management side of it that are feeding it and it’s good for the environment.

So thank you for debunking some of those Hussain that was really good stuff, man. Good stuff. Well, I’ll tell you what we call it EECO Asks Why we always like to wrap up with the why Hussain, you really gave us a good insider look at the pulp and paper industry. Hopefully you got a lot of people curious and wanting to go check out some paper mills and learn more, but let’s get to the why here.

Why should people consider pulp and paper as a wonderful career? You’re definitely finding a lot of joy in your career path. So just a, what would be the why here? 

Hussain: 16:30 

So from my experience the work and life balance has been great. I get to focus on the things I really enjoy at work and at the same time, focus on family, school, work, what have you, I started work and it offers opportunity to work with great people very knowledgeable team members locally, globally, and on an national and international level. And as employee you’re encouraged to try new opportunities within the organization. No other company that I have worked for in the past promotes this as openly as IP does. We are always encouraged to look at your next level move, work with managers to attain your dream career, let’s say, or dream job that is always you’re always welcome to do that.

And it offers a challenging work environment that is also very rewarding. And if we’re looking to work with fun team members then look no further look at the paper mill. Yeah. 

Chris: 17:21 

Yeah. Absolutely. And I can atest I’ll back you up a hundred percent. It’s a wonderful industry. I hope our listeners really listen here and got value that I feel like you really brought at a high level Hussain.

Thank you for giving us that inside look, it was really fun to hear from you from the capital project standpoint and just get that inside feedback around this wonderful industry of pulp and paper. 

Hussain: 17:45 

Likewise, I’d like to thank you. And your team and it’s been great. 

Chris: 17:49 

Absolutely. You have a wonderful day, sir.