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Ripon paper giant closing after 44 years

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POSTED May 13, 2009 1:49 a.m.
RIPON — A Ripon paper plant that has long been a part of the nucleus to the community’s industrial base is closing — a move that has touched the hearts of its workers and their families.

“It’s sad, sad news for this tight-knit group of employees — some of whom have worked there since its inception,” said Lisa Rosa whose parents had both worked at the Fox River plant for years.

Andrew Douma — the late father of the former Ripon police chief Harvey Douma — worked diligently to bring the plant to the community in 1965 and seeing it locate near the Stanislaus River. Douma had found two separate locations for the firm, according to historical society spokesman John Mangelos.

“When one chapter closes, another opens,” Mangelos said. “We hope it will be a good one.”  

He added that he feels another industry will locate in the closed paper mill bringing prosperity with its move into Ripon.

Red Nutt, Ripon chamber of commerce president and city council member, said he remembers well when the paper mill and Nestle’s Coffee were the two biggest employers in town along with a number of trucking companies.

Nutt said he feared the closure would have some affect on the community since many of the mill’s employees live in Ripon.

It was last week that Neenah Paper announced its plans to permanently close its fine paper mill in Ripon. Operations at the mill have produced some 35,000 tons of paper annually.

The operation will be orderly phased out within the next two months and it will  be absorbed by the company’s other fine paper mills.  

Company president John O’Donnell said, “This decision is consistent with our strategy to drive consolidation in the premium fine paper category through leading brands and a cost efficient manufacturing platform. Closing the Ripon mill allows us to significantly reduce costs and simplify our supply chain without compromising our ability to serve our customers.”

He praised the Ripon employees for doing an outstanding job this year working safely and efficiently despite reduced schedules that have resulted from lower market demands.

“We will now focus on assisting these employees through this difficult transition as well as marketing the site to potential buyers,” he said.

The mill closure is expected to result in a pre-tax charge to earnings of approximately $17 million in the second quarter comprised of $6 million in non-cash charges, primarily for the write-down of production assets at the Ripon facility and another $11 million related to cash payments for contract terminations, severances and other employee costs.  Some $7 million would be paid in 2009 with the remaining payments in 2010 and beyond, O’Donnel said.

He added that in addition to future proceeds from selling the Ripon site, expected benefits include annual cash savings of over $7 million as a result of reductions in fixed costs and the improved distribution and manufacturing efficiencies.

The Simpson Lee Paper Company was the original paper company that located in the Ripon community in 1965. The firm, as well as its employees, were part of the community’s fabric and the originator of the Simpson Lee Days — the forerunner of the Almond Blossom Festival.

For years the firm would host the queen candidates and their guests at their fine text and cover paper mill VIP reception center prior to the crowning of the festival queen at the community center festivities.

The mill has changed hands twice over the years — first in 1996 when it was purchased by the Fox River Paper Company and second in 2007 when it again transferred ownership - this time to Neenah paper Company of Alpharetta, GA.

Over the years the firm has supported the education community in Ripon with donations of paper products as well as being involved in local events and civic activities.

Many of the paper mill employees followed their parents and other family members into the industry. Some were there when the facility opened and soon will be leaving for the last time.

Neenah Paper credited the camaraderie of the employees displayed doing the last acquisition as the Ripon team  produced a safety record of 635 day duration.  

One long-time employee put it best when she said her farewell “to such a fine place of employment” for the many who just grew up with the mill. “It was a great place to work and it  has left many broken hearted,” she said.
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