Expera Coated Products celebrates move into former Printpack building

November 17, 2016

Jamie Taylor

Northwoods River News

With the symbolic passing of an oversize key, a division of Expera Specialty Solutions took formal possession of a vacant industrial building at 114 West Kemp Street in Rhinelander Tuesday morning, finalizing a deal that was over a year in the making and involved a $15 million loan from the state.

As Northeast Wisconsin Development Corporation (NEWEDC) board president Mike Gibbons handed the giant gold key to Jeff Verdoorn, manager of the Rhinelander Expera paper mill, it marked the finish of a quest to expand the output of the company's production in the city. The Kemp Street building, which formerly housed Printpack, will be the home of a subsidiary of the company called Expera Coated Products and a new state-of-the-art coater to make release paper for its graphite fiber composite products.

Verdoorn said the Rhinelander mill has a rich history with the city and people come into contact with paper products made in the mill every day.

"Our mill has an amazing 113-year history, almost as long as Rhinelander has been in existence," he said. "Our skilled employees make a multitude of technical specialty paper products like baking paper, microwave popcorn bags, food service bags, industrial specialty as well as release liners used in silicone coating applications, which is what we're here for, just to name a few."

He said Expera Coated Products was formed as a stand-alone company within the mill to make unique technical products used by the aerospace industry.

"(The products are) so unique in fact, that our customers have asked us to tailor our manufacturing capacity to a particular catalyst release that is critical for them to make their fiber composite materials for the aerospace industry," Verdoorn said. "This product is a direct result of a customer request. It is not a build it and they will come project, rather, it is a build it at our customer's request project."

While Boeing is not a direct customer of Expera Coated Products, their products are key components in the 787 Dreamliner and 777X airliners the company builds, he added.

"Boeing requires that Expera Coated Products release liner is used by their direct suppliers to create composite products needed to make Boeing's jetliners," he said.

He then showed two short videos available on Boeing's website about the two planes and how carbon fiber composites play a key role in the larger, more fuel efficient planes. The composites are between 20 and 30-percent lighter than aluminum and over half of each plane is made of the material.

It was the six-year development of the release sheet used in the manufacture of the 787 that got the company into the field, he added.

"Since then, as they have ramped up their production, we have ramped up our production to the point where our coater is essentially full supporting the Boeing Dreamliner," Verdoorn said.

The 777X project involves retrofitting the 777 with larger, carbon fiber wings that are upwardly curved like those of a bird. Material to support this project is taking up even more of the Rhinelander mill's capacity to the point that expansion was critically needed.

He said the only way the company could afford to expand into the Kemp Street property was through the unique partnership between the Oneida County Board of Supervisors, the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation, (OCEDC), NEWEDC, the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) that resulted in the $15 million loan.

"Expera did not ask for a dime in local public assistance, just access to low cost funds that are available to communities," Verdoorn said. "Expera will pay back all principal plus all interest, which the interest will be used to build public school libraries. In fact, during the 6.5-year loan term, Expera will pay over $2.4 million in interest to be used for Wisconsin public projects instead of sending it off to New York bankers."

He said Rhinelander and Oneida County will benefit from the creation of 15-20 new high paying technical jobs. In addition, the once-empty manufacturing facility left behind when Printpack built a new plant on State Highway 17, is back on the tax rolls.

"This is truly a win-win-win. And I can promise, without this financing option, this project never would have happened," he said.

Bob Smith, president of United Steel Workers Union Local 15, one of two unions representing workers at the mill, spoke briefly.

"Both Locals 15 and 1778 are excited about the expansion of our mill and express our thanks to the (county) board members," Smith said. "This expansion will provide additional jobs with good pay and benefits for our families. It will also help build the future of our mill as we continue to grow."

Before introducing Gibbons, Verdoorn talked about the importance of the county government stepping up to take out the loan from the state to make the expansion possible.

"I've had the unfortunate job responsibility of closing a number of paper mills in my career, also in small communities like Rhinelander," he said. "Once that announcement is made, elected officials come out of the woodwork to ask how they can help. Unfortunately, by then it's just too late. I am so grateful to our elected county board members who chose to do something proactive to make our business stronger. I am grateful to the BCPL to provide access to the funding, and I'm also grateful to the NEWEDC who provided the conduit."

Gibbons said Verdoorn first presented the idea for the project to the NEWEDC board about a year ago.

"The first thing I thought of when Jeff came to our board was wow, sticker shock. We're talking $15 million, that's five times more money than anything we had done in the past," he said.

Over the course of the year, the group deliberated about the project and what it would mean to the community. he added.

He thanked Verdoorn and OCEDC executive director Roger Luce for their tenacity in pursuing the project.

"Roger is amazing at his job. He educated us about what we didn't know and if he didn't know what we needed to know, he found people who knew what we needed to know," Gibbons said. "He really shepherded us through the entire process."

He also thanked county board chairman Dave Hintz and the rest of the board for seeing the benefits of the project and voting to take out the loan through the BCPL.

Hintz said the work of getting a new occupant for the Kemp Street building started on June 11, 2012 when Printpack announced its plans to build a new facility in town, vacating the Kemp Street facility. Despite many different ideas for another use of the building, nothing progressed beyond the idea stage until Verdoorn stepped forward with the idea to expand Expera into the structure.

"Jeff led this fearlessly, with tenacity and made it a success," Hintz said. "Roger joined in and provided a lot of knowledge. Without the two of them, this project never would have happened."

Jonathan Barry, secretary of BCPL, said they have had the "good fortune" of working with Oneida County before on the Printpack expansion and other projects, and knew of the "proven track record" of strong economic development.

"Oneida County is characterized by outstanding leadership, both at the county level and in your economic development corp, represented by Roger Luce," Barry said.

Throughout the process, Luce said he counted on state senator Tom Tiffany and representative Rob Swearingen "to bounce things off of, to see what were the possibilities."

Tiffany humbly said he did "very little" in the process and that Verdoorn and Luce deserved the real credit.

After the presentation of the key and a symbolic check for the $15 million, the audience broke into small groups to tour the facility.

Verdoorn said afterward the goal is for the coater to be up and running by July 2017, but a lot of work will need to be done to the building before then starting this winter.

"We will be raising a portion of the roof about 15 feet to get the coater in," he said, adding that the new coater is to expand the capacity of the Rhinelander operation.

While the coater is designed to make the aerospace release liner, other products could be manufactured on it, as well, he added.

It was also pointed out that the Kemp Street building could be used for future expansion since the coater will only use a portion of the structure.

Verdoorn added that the building will also be used to hold extra product awaiting shipment to its customers.

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