Expera celebrates one year anniversary in Rhinelander
Last spring when questions about the fate of the Rhinelander paper mill and the jobs of nearly 500 employees were up in the air, one company stepped up and saved the plant and the jobs.
Thursday, that company celebrated its one year anniversary in Rhinelander and the change in the atmosphere is noticable around the mill.
“I think there is a feeling that we are playing offense rather than defense now,” mill manager Jeff Verdoorn said. “There is a lot less fear. People see a purpose in their work.”
Verdoorn spent more than 20 years with Wausau Paper, the former owner of the mill, but stayed on when the newly formed Expera came in last year to run the company.
Verdoorn said Wausau Paper is a great company but market factors and the focus of Expera is a plus for the Rhinelander mill.
“The priority is about growth,” Verdoorn said. “We are the largest manufacturer of specialty paper in North America.”
Expera also purchased mills in Mosinee, Kaukauna and DePere as it combined assets from Wausau Paper and Thilmany, two companies that used to compete.
“Now that we are partnered with our biggest competitor, we are strong in the market,” Verdoorn said. “It is nice to be in that position.”
And that has led to a good working environment at the mill.
“There is a lot of hard work going on in that mill,” Verdoorn said.
Local 15 Union president D.J. DeMeyer said there is a sense of cooperation in the company and there is a lot going on in the mill.
“Things are good; we’re busy,” DeMeyer said. “We’re working together to make this a successful company for years to come.”
While the first year has been a successful transition for Expera, Verdoorn said many challenges are still out there.
“We want to continue to grow and continue the process that we are on,” he said. “Expera is committed to growth.”
How that growth will play out remains to be seen and many factors outside the paper industry will affect what kind of growth the company will see.
“Right now our biggest enemy is not our competition, but government regulations,” Verdoorn said. “In the market, we are fine, but regulations are a big issue.”
Verndoorn said environmental regulations and government mandates including the Affordable Healthcare Act, weigh on Expera’s ability to grow.
“They are policies that are unfriendly to business,” Verdoorn said.
He added that Expera has always taken an environmentally friendly approach as it produced renewable energy with its hydroelectric dam, as a charter member of the Save Energy Now Leaders, and its expertise in biomass and green energy.
And part of Expera’s plan is to ensure that communities and those around the mills know about the initiatives going on there.
“I think in the past there has been some secrecy around the mill,” Verdoorn said. “We want to be open. We know we are a part of the community. We are responsible for creating Boom Lake. So we are a big part of Rhinelander and we are not going anywhere anytime soon.”