Harmac Pacific remains up and running a decade after a downturn and doubt.
The pulp mill in Nanaimo’s Duke Point industrial area held a brief ceremony outside the mill at lunch hour Thursday to recognize 10 years as an employee-owned company.
“It’s been an absolutely amazing experience for the last 10 years,” said Paul Sadler, CEO of Harmac. “It’s not all been easy. We’ve had some pretty tough years in the past and we’ve certainly had some great sailing over the last 12 months.”
The mill had been shut down for months in 2008 when it was rescued by employees who committed $25,000 each, with help from financial backers including Ed and Levi Sampson, Frank and Mike Crucil and Bryan Reid.
“People were writing us off. All the analysts were saying that this wasn’t going to work,” said Levi Sampson, Harmac president. “The mill had been shut down for five months at the time; it’s very costly to get it back up and running. But all the employees believed that they could do it; they’re the guys that know the mill best.”
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Bob Smiley, longtime Harmac worker, said experienced union leadership at the time knew what the mill could do, so it was an easy decision to want to try to keep it going.
“I was one of the people that were trying to convince other people to do it, so I had to believe in it myself,” he said. “The toughest part was getting through that first 12 months.”
Sampson said he recalls stock piling up in the warehouse, and being in China when Harmac made the decision to sell its first order, 15,000 tonnes, at a loss.
“We were in a tight spot, we were losing money, it was hard to get customers back,” he said. “Customers were wondering if we were going to be around in a couple months, and so they weren’t necessarily wanting to fill out order forms with us.”
Ten years later, he said the mill is going strong. A 25-megawatt turbo generator that sells power back to the grid is a “nice, steady income stream” that Harmac can rely on to bring certainty in a cyclical pulp market.
Smiley said the Harmac workers, 10 years ago, were motivated to have a mill for people in the community so they could live and work locally. He’s proud to hear from applicants who say they’ve heard it’s a great place to work.
“Whatever is made here is either paid out in wages and salaries and benefits, it’s either invested back into the mill, or it’s paid in dividends and the employees gain from all three of those,” Smiley said.
Sampson added that $20 million has been paid out in municipal taxes and he’s glad Harmac can offer “good-paying” jobs in the region.
Since becoming company-owned, he said Harmac has seen a “steep decline” in sick days and injury days and said workers seem to care just that little bit more about the business.
“When you’re an owner, it really changes things…” Sampson said. “It’s that pride that people take. You have guys that’ll work through lunch hours, they’ll stay after work without being told to, they don’t have a superintendent that has to force them to do it. They’ll do it because they own a part of it and they want to see it work.”