The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every sector of the economy, and the pulp and paper sector has not been immune. To open the 107th edition of PaperWeek Canada, presented virtually for the first time, three experts offered their views on the impacts of the pandemic and the recovery strategy.
Economic uncertainty, border and travel restrictions, teleworking and physical distancing are among the major shifts experienced by pulp and paper mills across the country. "We had to adapt very quickly to continue operations while putting measures in place to protect our employees," said Eric Ashby, Vice-President Manufacturing at Domtar, which operates in eight U.S. states and three Canadian provinces.
The same goes for Kevin Anderson, Vice-President of Pulp Operations for Canfor Pulp, which operates in Canada, the U.S. and Sweden. "We have implemented new occupational health and safety protocols, requiring many employees to work from home," he noted.
Initially, it was difficult to predict how long the pandemic would last, but almost a year after the emergence of the virus, Eric Ashby believes there will be lasting impacts on the labour market. "Today, less than 10 percent of our office workers are in face-to-face work," he confirmed, underscoring his belief that this way of working will take hold over the long term. When things return to normal, he expects to see only 20 to 30% of office workers onsite, with the rest continuing to telework. “This change has brought benefits in some respects, but it is much more difficult to establish a corporate culture and find creative solutions remotely,” says Eric Ashby.
Kevin Anderson agrees, and is in a unique position to do so, given he was hired for his current position in April 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic. "Teleworking works pretty well, but the culture of a company develops through face-to-face meetings," he says, noting his eagerness to shake hands with Canfor plant managers and other Canfor employees he hasn't been able to meet face-to-face yet.
Domtar, Canfor, and several other producers have had to shut down a few machines, and in some cases entire plants, depending on product markets. This slowdown has forced the companies to review their operations and their investment strategies.
The Canadian government is well aware of the difficulties faced by the 130 mills in the forest sector who have had to close their doors," said Beth MacNeil, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada. Nearly 16,000 of the 20,000 people who lost their jobs have been able to return to work, and the Canadian government has put in place several programs to help companies, particularly SMEs, implement health and safety measures for workers. The government also wants to support a green recovery, to establish a circular economy, rather than one based on extraction.
According to Véronique Proulx, CEO of Manufacturiers et Exportateurs du Québec (MEQ) and Vice-President of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, labour shortages affect more than 60% of Canadian manufacturing companies surveyed recently. In the face of economic uncertainty, two schools of thought are clashing," Proulx says, "as some companies are postponing investments while others have decided to invest now to take advantage of the rebound after the pandemic.”
Anderson points out that the pulp industry has seen growth in demand and prices over the past year. "The key to our success will be to maintain our core business and exploit our niche markets with high quality products," he said, adding that Canfor wants to continue to decarbonize its operations to offer greener products to its customers.
According to Ashby, in times of crisis, you have to make sure you have cash, like a good accountant would. "We need to build on a solid foundation for the long term by focusing our core business," he says. Once the pandemic is over, it will be time to look at investment opportunities for new bioproducts or bioenergy.
Of note, more than 968 people, including 727 participants from mills, registered for the 107th edition of PaperWeek Canada.