One of the South's first mills to recycle cardboard and paper marks its 100th birthday Sunday.
"We were environmentally conscious 100 years ago," said Pat Cowan, general manager of the WestRock Chattanooga Mill at 701 Manufacturers Road next door to Southern Champion Tray.
The old brick and steel building opened its doors Friday so guests invited to a 100th anniversary ceremony could tour the steam-powered workings of the 264,000-square-foot complex on 40 acres near the Tennessee River.
Bales of recycled cardboard boxes go in one end of the sprawling plant and rolls of recycled paperboard come out the other.
The plant's output is sold to customers, including Southern Champion Tray, to make such things as cardboard tubes, the dividers in wine cases and the pink-hued boxes that hold doughnuts, cakes and other bakery products.
History was on display everywhere Friday.
Visitors walked between the mill's two towering paper-making machines that run around the clock and can churn out around 400 tons per day of paperboard.
One line was installed in 1947, and still uses huge, gear-driven, paper-drying drums installed that year, mill maintenance superintendent Jackie Hancock said. Parts of the original, 1917 paper-making line are still in place, too, he said.
"It's old technology, but it is still working," Hancock said.
The old plant works very well indeed, company officials said.
"The Chattanooga Mill is a world-class facility," said Steve Voorhees, the CEO of WestRock, a $15 billion, publicly-traded company based in Norcross, Ga., that employs some 45,000 people in more than 300 facilities.
During his turn at the lectern, Voorhees told guests that he wasn't just saying that to be nice on the mill's anniversary. He cited data from the survey company, Gallup, to back it up.
When the mill's business customers were asked by Gallup if they'd recommend the Chattanooga facility on a one-to-five scale, Voorhees said the Chattanooga WestRock Chattanooga Mill got a 4.74 score.
"World class is 4.7," Voorhees said to loud applause.
The mill had gross revenues of $70.2 million in fiscal year 2016, a company flyer said, and the plant had a record month in June, when its production averaged 398 tons a day.
Voorhees said that the leaders of the Chattanooga mill were some of the "founders, movers and shakers" that led to the success of WestRock.
"We stand on the shoulders of a guy named John Stagmaier who started this mill," Voorhees said, pointing out the founder's great-grandson, John Stagmaier, the mill's human resources manager, who was in the audience.
Generations work in mill
"Four generations of Stagmaiers worked in the Chattanooga mill," Voorhees said.
Voorhees also cited such Chattanoogans as W. Max Finley — whose family name is on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's football stadium — as well as Bradley Currey, Jr., the former CEO of Rock-Tenn, the company that merged in 2015 with MeadWestvaco Corp. to form WestRock.
The WestRock Chattanooga Mill also came in for praise from elected officials. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke sent a proclamation, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger was in attendance and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, addressed the crowd.
"Manufacturing is roaring back in the United States of America. WestRock exemplifies that," said Fleischmann, who noted that he has five WestRock facilities in his district — the most of anyone in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The WestRock Chattanooga Mill has 164 employees, 27 or which are salaried and 137 who are hourly, including workers represented by the Teamsters union and the United Steel Workers.
Despite cool temperatures outside, it was almost 100 degrees Friday morning inside the noisy, humid heart of the mill that smelled of wet cardboard. It can reach 120 to 130 degrees inside in the summer, Hancock said.
Longtime employees on duty included machine tender Steve Clark, who's logged 43 years at the mill. That includes 38 years when Clark said he worked seven days a week, swing shift, before the Chattanooga facility switched in 2012 to four, 12-hour days on followed by four days off.
Another longtime employee was Danny Buchanan, a third-generation employee who's spent 27 years at the mill, most recently as a liner man who helps get bales of old cardboard boxes into the giant, spinning water-filled tubs called pulpers that turn recycled cardboard into the pulp that feeds the mill.
"Man, I can't complain," Buchanan said of his job. "This place has been good to my family over the years."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu @timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.