Sappi interview on the challenges facing the paper industry

Ahead of 50th edition of PRIMA, confirmed speaker Berry Wiersum, Chief Executive Officer of Sappi, gave us a short interview on the opportunities and challenges currently facing the pulp, paper and board sectors. 

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The strapline for PRIMA in this, its 50th year, is Chaos creates opportunity. How would you summarise the main opportunities, and challenges, for the pulp/paper/paperboard sectors?

This is a very exciting time for the pulp and paper industry. We are living through a period of intense innovation – not just in our industry, but generally. In the past these sorts of periods have brought high economic growth and although the current economic climate looks rather gloomy, we may well find that innovation turns it around. There are perhaps two main drivers of innovation today: Digital Technology and Sustainability.

In our industry it is happening to both product and process; on product due to online shopping and replacement of plastic packaging and on process due to the need to use the whole tree to generate materials and to remove CO2 emissions from an otherwise clean process. In both cases it’s a race; we should not underestimate how plastic will fight back; the chemical industry is one of the world’s great industries, extremely rich and highly influential as well as innovative.

On the process side, due to our energy consumption we are on the Energy Intensive Industries list, which means we get special attention of the wrong kind. Our industry challenge is how to get off that list and that’s going to take some fundamental innovation. It’s hard to do and will require industry-wide cooperation. It’s also, potentially at least, a major balance sheet issue and some pretty concentrated high level thought is going into solving that one. Chaos does indeed threaten, but if we get all the moving parts right there is a giant opportunity waiting for us over the next 30 years.

What are the priorities for you and your team in 2020 and beyond?

Not surprisingly, innovation and capital planning currently play a big role in my team’s daily life. We have just completed a major refurbishment of our graphics assets and have significantly expanded our Specialities and Packaging assets. We have customers screaming at us for new packaging solutions and graphics customers demanding new digital solutions.

We have modified the organisation to include a VP Innovation and Sustainability with proper resources so that we can answer these demands. She is rushed off her feet, but the solutions are coming. We look at it in three time slots: the markets up to 2025; the shape of the asset capability up to 2030 and then what to do towards 2050.

Not surprisingly, with all that goes a new approach to management and leadership, since the kinds of changes required require an extraordinary level of engagement from all at Sappi.

What key issues are you hoping to see discussed across the two days of the conference?

I look forward to thoughtful discussion of world markets and how geopolitical influences will affect them; thoughts on environmental legislation and how it will affect the industry; the future markets for pulp; the development of Artificial Intelligence and maybe some content about the growing attractiveness to the next generation of our industry.

Can you provide a brief summary of what you plan to speak about in September?

In my 7 minutes I will cover mainly transformation, both for Sappi and for our industry. I will explore what we think it takes for a successful transformation,  but also how markets, customers and legislators are forcing us to transform anyway. There’s no choice, so we had better enjoy it!

As a strong supporter of PRIMA over the years, what are you most looking forward to regarding attending the 50th edition of PRIMA in Prague?

I’ve been around for quite a long time now, so I look forward to seeing the quality of the next generation and how they look at our industry and manage it. I hope it’s different from what we did!