The pulp and paper mill at the curve of the St. Louis River in Cloquet has been one of the largest employers in Carlton County for decades, from Northwest Paper to Potlatch, and most recently Sappi. Even after the main products that had sustained the large company for the majority of its life had dropped in demand, the newest owners did not give up. Sappi found creative ways to keep the business not only surviving, but thriving with the new innovations.
Sappi North America was recognized by the Minnesota Office of Foreign Direct Investment on Wednesday as the mill's South African owner has poured money into the plant to keep it viable and growing in recent years.
"I cannot imagine a better example of driving investment and driving innovation in this region," said Brian Hanson, CEO of economic development firm APEX, as dignitaries and company officials gathered to celebrate the award. "This is exactly the kind of innovation we need in this region to continue to be successful."
Sappi bought the 119-year-old Cloquet mill in 2002. Part of the state recognition stems from a $170 million investment in 2012 that brought chemical cellulose capabilities to the mill, keeping it on the leading edge of the industry. Continued investment, such as a new head box due next month, is anticipated.
"We see a bright future for the mill," said Sappi North America CEO Mark Gardner. "We'll be growing in North America over the next few years."
U.S. Congressman Rick Nolan addressed the audience Wednesday, explaining that he had once owned an export trading company and he was excited to see a foreign investment coming into the United States instead of out.
"Global trading is very competitive," Nolan said. "Sappi is a world class company ... Having seen how it's done around the world, I can see we have a world class workforce here."
State Rep. Mike Sundin, who has worked construction jobs at mills including Cloquet's, applauded the continued confidence in the work done here.
"These are quality jobs, much appreciated by the communities and the people who gather here to work," said Sundin, of Esko.
Sappi employs about 700 people at the Cloquet mill. Despite downturns within the industry it has its eyes on growth.
"That commitment that we have to excellence is recognized by Sappi, and that's where the investments come from," Cloquet mill manager Mike Schultz said. "When we show we're able to deliver on things we've promised, that we show our true commitment to the success of this mill, it brings on more and more investment."