MADE IN CHICKASAW COUNTY: International Paper

International Paper's Jay Sterkel stands at the control board of a computerized slitter at the plant in Houston. The multi-million dollar machine allows International Paper to produce corrugated paper quicker, faster and more efficiently. (Floyd Ingram)

International Paper’s Jay Sterkel stands at the control board of a computerized slitter at the plant in Houston. The multi-million dollar machine allows International Paper to produce corrugated paper quicker, faster and more efficiently. (Floyd Ingram)

HOUSTON – Robotics, lightning-fast logistics, computers and measurements down to thousandths-of-an-inch may make it sound like a high-tech, Silicon Valley company, but it really does happen at International Paper in Houston.
The local plant makes cardboard boxes – and lots of them – so the process is fast-paced, high-tech and computer-driven. And they can print just about anything on those boxes that the customer wants.
“This facility has been here a number of years and has had a number of owners,” said Bob Bamer, General Manager of Houston’s International Paper facility. “International Paper bought it in 1998 and since 2000 we have invested more than $18 million. We invested $3.4 million in this plant last year.”
The plant features a product floor where automated trucks roll up and down aisles picking out the pre-cut cardboard boxes to be printed with a color label or logo. Those boxes are once again mechanically stacked and stored for shipping by the International Paper’s local fleet of trucks.
“I don’t think people realize how automated we are,” said Bamer. “Computers and automation have helped improve tolerances, speed and cut down on waste.”
Bamer said IP employees are trained to set up the machine, turn it on and watch for discrepancies that are pointed out in every run by the computer.
International Paper has a network of state of the art corrugators located across the United States. They are capable of producing a large array of regular and specialty cardboards in a variety of flutes.
“Our main products are boxes for building products – specifically vinyl siding – furniture and boxes for air conditioner units,” said Bamer. “We also do a lot of industrial boxes that will contain bottled chemicals.”
The local plant is not qualified to do food grade boxes, yet. One of International Paper’s major markets in Mississippi is poultry and meat packaging.
“We can also print and produce a box that is ready to be displayed in a retail store,” said Bamer. “We are capable of doing everything except a very high-end graphic here at this plant.”
Bamer said the Houston plant also prints and produces a lot of boxes for sweet potato farms in the area.
International Paper has worked hard to develop relationships with local industry, too. They are a major supplier of boxes to Franklin Corp. IP Houston also contracts out work to Chickasaw Container in Okolona.
And Bamer pointed to a veteran group of employees who know their job and produce a high-quality product.
“We have 114 employees and I would say we are a very senior plant,” Bamer said. “Many have 17 years or more with us and we have several 30-year employees who come to work every day.”
International Paper does pay better than some factories and Bamer said he likes to think there is a culture of quality that keeps employees here.
He said IP had four employees leave for jobs with an auto manufacturer. He also said two of them came back to the Houston plant.
Fortune Magazine listed International Paper as one of its 2013 World’s Most Admired Companies. IP was ranked No. 1 in Forest and Paper Products Industry for the tenth time in the last eleven years
“Experience is a great quality in manufacturing because those people have a better understanding of the flow of production and how the entire operation works,” said Bamer. “I also believe senior employees are more safety oriented.”
International Paper’s Houston mill had a perfect safety record in 2012. The local company also has a wall of safety plaques going back to 2000.
“It’s something we expect out of everyone from management to the people on the floor and even those in our office,” said Bamer. “Our safety committee is serious about their work. A lot goes on out here on the floor, but safety is job one.”
Bamer said the high-tech nature of their equipment and machinery sometimes presents problems in finding quality workers.
“This community has a good workforce and they have a good work ethic,” said Bamer. “We invest a lot in training our workers. The maintenance side requires a fair amount of mechanical skills and a lot of electrical knowledge.”
Bamer said all employees must first past a battery of tests given by a third party specifically hired to screen applicants. Employees then must pass a physical and a drug test.
“These are not simple machines and the work does get labor intensive,” said Bamer. “We look for people who will come to work every day and then help improve their team by having a strong work ethic.”
Another largely unknown aspect of the Houston plant is it has its own fleet of tractors and trailer to move product around the country.
“All of our drivers are IP drivers in IP trucks,” said Bamer. “Having your own logistics group in-house makes us very customer oriented. You order it, we produce it and we get it where you need it.”
Bamer said the Houston plant has an impeccable record for on-time delivery that is well below the industry norm. He feels fast turnaround for customers keeps the machines running at the Houston facility.
Bamer said he has been in the corrugated paper industry for 37 years, with 14 of them with International Paper. He said there is a lot of pride in doing the job quickly, well and safely at IP-Houston.
“We’ve talked a lot about the machine and the technology, but it really is the people who work here who make it happen,” said Bamer. “It’s not one person or department, it’s a team effort where people have to work together to make us successful.”

International Paper General Manager Bob Bamer stands next to a head-high stack of cardboard that will soon be large boxes. The cardboads stands on a mechanized set of rollers that can move product to machines for processing at the Houston plant. (Floyd Ingram)

International Paper General Manager Bob Bamer stands next to a head-high stack of cardboard that will soon be large boxes. The cardboads stands on a mechanized set of rollers that can move product to machines for processing at the Houston plant. (Floyd Ingram)

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