The Ups and Mostly Downs of Coated Papers

For printers, the market for coated papers has offered the same highs and lows as a roller coaster ride during the past couple of years in terms of price and availability. As demand drops, so does the price, only to be corrected by slowdowns and closures among the manufacturers. And these can make coated hard to get, even at premium prices.

These papers have been used most often for magazines and advertising collateral materials, two print market segments that have been declining due to the increasing shift to electronic media. In addition, coated papers cost more than uncoated, and some print buyers have either rediscovered the virtues of uncoated or have moved to less expensive and lighter weight coated groundwood, especially for short-lived items like ad inserts. All of the larger paper mills have shed their coated capacity, spinning off independent producers that include the market leaders, NewPage, Smart Papers, and Verso.

New from NewPage

NewPage, based in Miamisburg, Ohio, has announced a new marketing program for its Futura Laser, Sterling Ultra Digital, Productolith Pts. Digital and Blazer Digital coated brands. Michelle Garrett, the company's manager of marketing strategy for digital papers, noted in a written statement: "After almost a year's work of integrating legacy Stora Enso North America and NewPage digital brands, we are proud to present a line-up of products that meet virtually every digital printing need. Today's digital printing business is application driven, and NewPage has technology optimized papers that produce offset quality results."

NewPage has initiated a digital swatchbook for these brands, including a digital capabilities brochure, a product guide for HP Indigo digital press users, sell sheets, and product sample kits. The company added that early this year, it will provide new packaging designs for each product that feature "a color-coded, pixelized graphic for each grade that will match the associated collateral for overall branding consistency."

NewPage's Futura Laser, Productolith Pts. Digital and Sterling Ultra Digital are FSC-, SFI- and PEFC-certified, while Blazer Digital is SFI- and PEFC-certified. Sterling Ultra Digital and Productolith Pts. Digital also contain 10 percent postconsumer fiber. The papers also have are RIT-certified for use with the HP Indigo and Kodak NexPress.

Although NewPage is emphasizing the positive and apparently is seriously targeting the digital printing market, the company continues to take what it calls "market-related downtime" at its mills, and early this year planned to reduce production by 150,000 tons of coated papers in the first quarter. The downtime may continue as dictated by economic conditions and market demand.

In February, NewPage reported a loss of $117 million for 2008, compared to a loss of $8 million for 2007, although sales increased by 101 percent because of acquisitions during the year.

Smart Papers

The big news here, of course, is Smart Papers' sale of its uncoated brands to Mohawk Papers, headquartered in Cohoes, N.Y. These brands include: Pegasus; Carnival; Synergy; Passport; Genesis; Magna Carta; Smart Brights; Feltweave; Nekoosa Linen, 25 percent Cotton, Bond; Skytone; Solutions; and Proterra. Smart Papers is based in Hamilton, Ohio, and Mohawk has operated a mill in Hamilton that was formerly owned by Beckett Papers, so apparently the deal involved an extra element of convenience for both companies.

Smart Papers will continue to produce its Kromekote and Knightcote cast-coated paper brands, but about half of its work force, about 250 production and administrative employees, will be laid off, according to local news reports. The company said it will continue to fulfill orders for its contract buyers, though Mohawk will market Smart's coated brands through paper distributors and merchants.

Despite the sale, Smart Papers is going ahead with the opening of its $30 million co-generation plant, a project it launched last year. The co-generation system will produce 40 megawatts of electricity, enough to power its mills with some surplus it will sell to other consumers. The new plant uses biomass fuel created from yard, industrial, and fiber waste, and Smart Papers may eventually find itself as a supplier of biomass fuel as well as paper.

Verso Paper

Of these three coated paper producers, Memphis, Tenn.-based Verso Paper Corp. was the last created—via a spin-off from International Paper—and produces papers primarily for the offset and gravure markets, perhaps the most hard hit by market shifts. The company went public a year ago, offering 14 million shares at $12 per share. In its fourth-quarter report issued early this month, Verso saw sales of its coated paper products decline by 27 percent over 2008. The company's losses totaled $33.56 million for the year, compared to a loss of $8.05 million for 2007. Verso has suspended dividend payments for the fourth quarter, but said it will re-evaluate this issue over this year.

"We have prepared ourselves for a challenging 2009 and have taken appropriate actions, including salary freezes, SG&A reductions, workforce planning improvements, and new product opportunities," said Mike Jackson, Verso's president and CEO. "Nonetheless, we expect first-quarter 2009 earnings to be sequentially down from fourth-quarter 2008 levels."

Coated papers remains one of the most difficult segments for the mills in terms of profitability. Although NewPage is pitching to the digital market, this was a tactic Smart Papers has tried with only limited success. The demand for coated papers simply isn't growing, and an uncertain economic environment doesn't help.

Jeanette Clinkunbroomer, a freelance writer, can be reached at Jclink@aol.com.

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