Business and Economy
4:30 pm
Wed July 9, 2014

The Currency: As Paper Industry Folds Across U.S., N.H. Mill Thrives

Monadnock Paper Mills provides paper for special edition DVDs, high-end catalogs, and product packaging.
Monadnock Paper Mills provides paper for special edition DVDs, high-end catalogs, and product packaging.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

The Currency is our ongoing look at economic and business news in New Hampshire. 

Headlines: A Mixed Recovery For Coos County, And Crumbs Closure Begs Question: Is Cupcakes Craze Over?

Coos County clocked its fifth straight quarter of economic growth this spring.  That’s according to Plymouth State University’s North Country Economic Index.  As expected, tourism leads the recovery.  But it wasn’t all good news.  Employment was down from the same time last year, as were home sales and median home prices.

Meanwhile, the national powerhouse cupcake chain Crumbs Bake Shop announced this week it’s closing all of its stores—including locations at malls in Nashua and Salem.  Which begs the question: Is the cupcake crazed sparked by Sex and the City really—finally— over…?

Lia Liporto owns New England Cupcakery in Concord
Lia Liporto owns New England Cupcakery in Concord
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

  “Cupcakes are really the ‘It’ thing right now.  A lot of people think that they’re just going to be a fad,” says Lia Liporto.  Owns and operates Concord’s New England Cupcakery, which she bought about two years ago.  Despite the downfall of the Crumbs bakery empire, she thinks long-term prospects for cupcake specialty bakeries are good.  But with such a super-specialized operation, Liporto says whether it’s an indie shop or a chain, you have to tread carefully.

“The thing is is that you need to expand, but you have to do it slowly and efficiently, and also effectively.  That’s just the one thing that you have to do," she says.  "Because if not, then you’re bound to pigeonhole yourself and then fail.”

Crumbs Bake Shop was founded in 2003.  The AP reports that within a decade, it had 65 stores spanning 12 states and Washington, DC.  Crumbs was de-listed from Nasdaq earlier this month, three years after going public.

Monadnock Paper Mills is an unusually scenic factory complex
Monadnock Paper Mills is an unusually scenic factory complex
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

N.H. Paper Mill In Unlikely Place Stays Afloat As Industry Flounders

If you buy wall coverings anywhere in the world, there’s a good chance the actual paper was made in New Hampshire, at Monadnock Paper Mills.  But if you’re driving to its mill in Bennington, and follow your GPS instructions to the letter, it’s easy to drive right past it.  

In fact, I did just that. 

Although MPM produces advanced products, like many in the paper- making industry, it maintains some traditional production methods.
Although MPM produces advanced products, like many in the paper- making industry, it maintains some traditional production methods.
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

  That’s because the mill sits on a plush, hilly plot of land along a river.  It’s as far from the stereotypical, borderline-blight look of factories as you can get.  On the outside, it just doesn’t look the part.

But on the inside, Monadnock paper looks, sounds, and smells like you’d expect.  And there are places where you can see, far below the factory floor, a pulp-and-water slurry rushing by.  It looks like a river of grits, and sports that special paper-making stench.  Walking deeper into the plant, Sales and Marketing VP Jim Clemente points to a big machine spooling out rippling, watery sheets.

"So all of the slurry is being metered out onto this wire," he says, pointing toward the massive machinery. "And this is where we're removing a significant amount of water.  At this point, about 90 percent of that sheet is water."

Founded almost 200 years ago, Monadnock is the longest continuously operating paper mill in the country.  With about 180-people on the payroll, it’s also one of the largest employers in southwest New Hampshire.   And while most Granite Staters hear “mill” and think “closed” and “North Country,” Clemente says the explanation for why his company has succeeded is pretty simple.

"The key for us is that first and foremost, we’re not a commodity paper mill.  Because we are a non-integrated mill, we don’t rely on a pulp source that is owned by a paper mill.  So that flexibility is unique in the paper industry," he says. "And has allowed us to develop innovative paper products that not only compete in traditional paper applications, but are also designed to replace alternative materials such as plastics and petroleum-based products that are not as friendly to the environment as paper.

Q: What are some examples of places where I might see Monadnock paper, or applications where Monadnock paper might be used?

MPM Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jim Clemente
MPM Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jim Clemente
Credit Amanda Loder / NHPR

  A: We’re most known for our text and cover graphic arts printing papers.  It’s typically used by high-end retailers in their catalogues who want a nice, uncoated look.  So people like David Yurman, Cole Haan.  But our volume, and our growth, has really been attributed to our technical specialty papers.  And these would be in products that you wouldn’t notice or recognize Monadnock’s name in them.  So a few examples of that is, you know, we are one of the larger producers of wall coverings in the world.  We don’t print them, but we sell the base papers that are used by companies that print and distribute wall coverings through retailers like Sherwin Williams.  We are heavily into medical packaging papers.

Q: In a world that becomes more digital every day, how will Monadnock Paper continue to stay viable?

A: Well we’ve certainly been affected by the digital revolution.  And if you look back at the recession we had back in 2008, that really only accelerated that problem for us.  The recession caused companies, obviously, to tighten their budgets.  And one of the areas that [was] specifically affected were people’s discretionary budgets for printing.  So many corporations stopped printing annual reports, they produced fewer catalogs, the catalogs that they produced had fewer pages.  So the printing industry as a whole was directly negatively impacted by the recession.  So as a result of that, you know, we saw a dramatic reduction in purchasing of printing paper.  And a lot of that has not come back as the recession sort of waned and the economy has picked up.  A lot of the transformation from print to digital remained in digital format online.  So we’ve had to transform our business and look for ways to grow our paper volume, where we weren’t affected by a change in printing.

Clemente says that’s meant branching out into things like high-end craft beer and wine labels, and creating special paper to replace plastic gift cards.

Check here again next Wednesday for The Currency, a weekly look at business and economic news in New Hampshire.