Gorham Paper becomes a toilet paper hero

Although diarrhea is not among the principal symptoms of the Covid-19 virus, among the most immediate and visible responses to the crisis has been shoppers stripping shelves of toilet paper.

Enter Gorham Paper & Tissue, which traces its origin to a sawmill that opened in 1852 and, after being shuffled among a handful of owners for a century, it was acquired by Patriarch Partners in May 2011. Under its new ownership and new name, the mill, one of the few remaining in northern New England, invested $35 million in a machine capable of producing 36,000 tons of tissue a year. And that’s something the Kelley brothers, Mark and Barry — who own White Mountain Lumber Company and Ace Hardware and Building Supply and operate a sawmill on the east side of Berlin — were quick to remember.

Mark Kelley recalled that on Thursday, March 19, his brother Barry dropped by the hardware store and noticed there was little toilet paper on the shelves. Kelley checked with Ace and other suppliers to no avail. Remembering that the mill had produced tissue, he called Wayne Johnson, financial officer at the mill.

Johnson said that Gorham Paper & Tissue makes 2,000-pound “parent rolls” of toilet paper, which are shipped to converters where they are “cut, sliced, embossed and packaged” into toilet rolls. For several years, the mill distributed White Mountain Tissue for the retail market.

“Our biggest customer was Walmart,” he said.

In 2017, rising demand for toilet paper in developing countries, including China, drove the price of pulp — about half the cost of making tissue — to “skyrocket,” he said. Johnson said when Walmart refused to adjust its wholesale pricing, the mill abandoned the retail market.

When Kelley called, Johnson told him some White Mountain Tissue remained and he would send him three units — four-by-four-by-four blocks of 45 packages of 20 rolls apiece, or 900 rolls altogether. Kelley said a corrections officer spotted the truck laden with toilet paper as it reached the store, jumped out of his car to become the first customer. “I had 20 people in the store right away,” he said, “and between 3 and 5 o’clock had sold 1,800 rolls.”

When Johnson asked if he wanted more, Kelley took another nine units, and by the beginning of the following week the mill had delivered 20 units.

“Between Thursday and Tuesday, 17 of the 20 units were sold,” Kelley said.

The mill also delivered to the Berlin Marketplace and Caron Building and Rental Center as well as donated tissue to Androscoggin Valley Hospital, where Kelley said a woman had scoured restrooms and made off with several bags of toilet paper. Kelley said word of his bounty quickly spread on social media. He said that after a customer of his lumberyard from Exeter heard the news, he drove to Berlin to get some.

The company’s prompt and generous response to the shortage moved U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to express her appreciation in remarks on the floor of the Senate chamber.

Johnson said the experience has led him to explore returning to the retail market. He said that, in the past, the parent rolls produced at the mill were converted at a plant in Long Island, with other facilities in Maryland and Pennsylvania. However, he said that a less distant facility in Maine may offer a more economically viable alternative to putting White Mountain Tissue back on the shelves.

Categories: Manufacturing