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Project Athena: Sappi celebrates completion of capital conversion project

This dramatic view of one of the two new digesters at Sappi's Cloquet mill was taken during construction of its new specialised cellulose conversion project. The new plant began producing cellulose in June, and by the end of the company's fiscal year on Oct. 1, it had already reached its budgeted goal. Contributed Photo cutline1 / 3
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A crane lifts the new ozone generator into place at Sappi's Cloquet mill during the conversion to its specialised cellulose manufacturing process. The generator is the largest single ozone generator of its kind in the world. Contributed Photo3 / 3

It's official. After $170 million in expenditures and a sparse one-year construction period, Sappi Fine Paper's capital conversion project -- dubbed "Project Athena" after the patroness of weaving -- was officially declared fully functioning and on budget this week.

At a special reception and tour of the new facility on Wednesday, Rick Dwyer, managing director of Sappi's Cloquet mill, told media representatives, city and county officials and other members of the community that the goal for the new production line designed to produce specialised cellulose was to be fully operational and producing at budget by the end of the company's fiscal year on Oct. 1.

"That happened, and that's why we're all here today to celebrate," said Dwyer.

"For a capital project of this magnitude and complexity," explained Dwyer, "we are very pleased with its successful completion. It is with great pride that we are celebrating the hard work of our employees and contractors and their role in helping Sappi bring state-of-the-art innovation to the Cloquet mill as we continue to invest in North American manufacturing."

The recently completed project was of massive proportions in its scope. Some 1,100 workers were employed on the project, with 41 different contractors, totaling over 550,000 man hours.

In the first two weeks of the new facility's start-up curve, average production went from 500-600 tons to over 1,000 tons produced per day as ramp-up continued into July.

Thus far, mill officials report the product output has exceeded quality targets, and the production capacity is fully up to speed in fulfilling customer orders.

Deece Hannigan, vice president of procurement and fiber resources, commented at Wednesday's reception that Sappi now produces 16 percent of the market share of specialised cellulose -- making it the largest manufacturer of the multi-faceted product in the world, with capacity totaling some 1.3 million metric tons per year. He said the company's goal is to ramp that up to a 20 percent market share by the end of 2014. The company now has the capability to produce the substance on two continents, including its South Africa expansion at the Sappi Ngodwana Mill and its Saiccor Mill in KwaZulu-Natal. With the Cloquet conversion now complete, the mill's specialised cellulose production is 330,000 metric tons per year.

Specialised cellulose, also known as dissolving wood pulp, is a versatile raw material used by manufacturers to produce a wide range of products including textile fibers and pharmaceutical, beauty and household products.

In addition to the specialised cellulose conversion project, Sappi also recently invested $15 million towards a dry fiber handling system as well as new refiners and upgrades on two of the mill's paper machines.

Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren had high praise for the company and all that it has accomplished.

"Ever since its start, this mill has been a highly significant economic engine for the community," said Ahlgren. "It represents four generations of family-centered employment."

Mike Schultz, managing director of Project Athena, said virtually every aspect of the mill was changed during the course of the construction of the conversion project. He talked of the many significant hurdles that had to be overcome during construction, including the devastating 2012 flooding that came just a month after the ground breaking on the project and the month-long period of bad weather this past April just as the project was concluding.

"It started with a flood -- and ended in a blizzard!" he said.