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Interview with Erin Sheehan, August 28, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Erin Sheehan, August 28, 2002
August 28, 2002
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Sheehan, Erin Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul / Warren, Harry Date of Interview:  8/28/2002 Series:  Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length  54 minutes


INTRODUCTION: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock. I’m with the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a staff person at the library. Today is the 28th of August in the year 2002. We’re going to be interviewing Ms. Erin Sheehan who is the communication manager of the International Paper plant in Riegelwood, North Carolina. To the right is Mr. Harry Warren who is the director of the North Carolina Museum of Forestry. Ms. Sheehann of course is on your left.

INTERVIEWER: I’m going to start off with the world’s most obvious question. Ms. Sheehan, tell me a little about your background and how in the world did you ever end up as communications manager in a paper plant?

SHEEHAN: I came into it by accident. I started off, I grew up in Indiana and I moved up to Wisconsin. My parents and family lived up in Wisconsin when I started college. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I was an English major. As I was a senior, I didn't know what I was going to do that. My parents didn't know what I was going to do with it either.

While there’s a lot of paper mills up in Wisconsin, I didn't have a great deal of exposure to it. My only exposure was that I waited tables in a town where they did have a paper mill in Mosenii, Wisconsin and I actually swore that I would never live in a town where there was a paper mill because I did not care for the odor. I went on record with this I believe when I was a sophomore in college (laughter).

So when my senior year rolled around, I put my resume out and was called by International Paper. I wasn’t familiar with the company. I wasn’t familiar with the forest products industry, but as I learned about the job, I realized that communications was very much something that I would enjoy doing. So I interviewed with them and the final stage of the interview was to take all the candidates into a paper mill. While I wasn’t a bigger fan of some of the odors and some of the processes around it, I really found that I liked it.

It was like magic. I believe it’s 93% water at the beginning and it just looks like soggy paper towels and you walk down the machine and you see it all happen and at the end it’s paper. The mill I toured was actually notebook paper, it was amazing, absolutely amazing. You see it from the logs coming in all the way to paper at the end.

It interested me a great deal so I started with the company and worked a year at a mill they had in Georgia and then I worked two years up in the corporate offices and told them I appreciated the experience at corporate, but I loved working at the mill and they sent me down here to Riegelwood.

INTERVIEWER 2: So you’ve been with the paper company, with International for your 5th year and loving every minute of it except for the smell.

SHEEHAN: And that you get used to (laughter).

INTERVIEWER 2: Did you tell your prospective employers that up front that you know, I love what you’re doing, but I might have an issue with the odor?

SHEEHAN: No, I was an English major. I figured I would get over the odor if I would have a paycheck at the end of college (laughter). So that proved to be a bigger thing for me and as I learned about the process and toured the mill and got to know what was causing it, your nose does get familiar with it. There’s some smell when you walk out to the paper machines and it just smells like wet paper. It’s very warm, but it’s not an offensive odor. You’ve seen it come all the way the process, its neat to see in the end.

INTERVIEWER 2: It seems like, just from my perspective, I grew up in this area and of course Riegelwood has been here my entire life and in Wilmington where I lived, when I was growing up, you could tell which direction the wind was blowing by how it smelled outside. As I’ve gotten older, it doesn’t seem like I smell that as much. Have they been able to dilute it or change it or they just don’t produce it as much or is that my imagination?

SHEEHAN: No, you don’t smell it as much. There’s been a lot of environmental changes in the last 20-30 years. We’ve been able to reduce the odor. What you’re smelling a lot of the time is sulfur and that is a smell that the human nose can detect. In very, very small quantities, five parts per billion, your nose picks it up. So you know, you’re always going to smell a little bit of it, it’s there, but the amount, that’s part per billion has gone down.

INTERVIEWER 2: I’m going to go back to your past a little bit. You said you waited tables in a Wisconsin town that had a paper mill. Did you get a lot of customers at this particular restaurant that worked at the mill?

SHEEHAN: No and the reason I worked there, it was in Mosenii, Wisconsin, they have the Mosenii Paper Company and they have the mill there. There was an airport across the highway and so it was mainly for that. Small town, probably 5,000, maybe 10,000 people, and very much the way Riegelwood is here where the mill is right in town. But there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic. The restaurant I was at was mostly airport.

INTERVIEWER 2: So you didn't come in contact with any of the mill workers there that much.

SHEEHAN: No, no, my only…when I was about 10 miles outside of the town, I could start to smell it and that was really the only introduction I had to paper at that point in time (laughter).

INTERVIEWER 2: You got your job with IP by just putting out an application at a job fair or something along that line?

SHEEHAN: I had it on the internet through the university and International Paper does some recruiting. Communications at that time, that department was recruiting at universities and somebody came on campus to interview for a couple of days and I was on that roster of people who interviewed.

INTERVIEWER 2: And you’ve been in communications from the git-go from day one no matter whether you were in Georgia or corporate. I know that’s what you’re doing here is…

SHEEHAN: Always been in communications.

INTERVIEWER 2: Communications has changed a lot. You know, we were talking to Scott earlier and you don’t have the depth of his _____ because of your age that he does, but at the same time, you’ve probably seen in the five years you’ve been with International some changes in not only how you communicate, but what you communicate because there seems to be a new emphasis and a very important part of the operation of the mill.

SHEEHAN: The work I’m doing basically has three different parts to it. The first is internal communications within the mill. We’re operating 24/7 and that makes it very difficult for employees to get a lot of information. You know if you’re coming on graveyard shift, you don’t have the same access to information that people on day shift may have.

We also do the media. We get a lot of media focus and media coverage here due to some of the environmental or other community issues that we’re dealing with so I handle that. Also the most fun part of it is that I get to do a lot of the community giving. The foundation, the grants, we support a lot of really great things in the community, this project being one of them. We’re excited about doing that and I get to be involved with that.

I don’t think that these positions, I don’t believe that the need was seen 20 or 30 years ago at all. There’s a growing need for it because of the depth of the detail of the information that we put out. I’ve seen a change since I started with the company. The company has grown dramatically. I’ve seen the company through two very big mergers, when International Paper merged with Union Camp and later with Champion International.

The company has grown by over 30,000 employees since I’ve been with the company. And that was just four years, we’ve had some smaller mergers as well so just our employee base has grown. It’s expanded more overseas so there’s been a lot more information coming from there. In the corporate positions I held, the issues grew larger because you need to get company publications translated into more and more languages all the time. We do more overseas. We’ve opened a beverage packaging plant in China. All of a sudden we’re dealing with that. We’ve got to get publications translated into Chinese.

On a local level, with the computers that are becoming more and more available throughout the mill, there’s more information that we can put on the computer and do it differently. We had computers, but sometimes they operate slowly because of the network that we’re on. The farther out you are in the mill, it may operate a little slower. So you have to adapt. I will not make people launch an application in an email, open it up and it’s right there. Because otherwise, it takes too long and people don’t have that long to wait. They need to be doing something else.

We’ve seen more information go onto to the Intranet. We have an Intranet site within the company. We have a special site for the mill. If you’re working out in the mill, there’s computers out in the control rooms and you can go onto the Intranet, go onto the Riegelwood mill Intranet and you can pick up an HR form, you can check out what the weekend duty schedule is. You can check out the seniority roster, information that you need so it’s becoming available there.

Then one other thing that you see in some mills around the company and Riegelwood is lucky to have it is we have a closed circuit television system that broadcasts slides that stay on about 10 seconds. We put daily production information up there. We put company information, you know, International Paper sold land to the nature conserve and all that goes up there. Then a lot of local weekly information, projects and you know, very current focus items that we have, we put that out there.

We have about 25 to 30 monitors throughout the mill. Employees see it in the cafeteria. They see it in the break rooms. They see it as they’re coming in and out of the gate in the morning. We have them in control rooms as well. It’s great, there’s no sound, it doesn’t take away. It’s not a safety hazard, but it’s a great way when people have a few minutes, that they get a lot of information in those few minutes and they know it’s updated and they know it’s what they need to know now.

INTERVIEWER 2: I really had not thought about how much internal communications are part of your job. I of course knew about dealing with media and that sort of thing and the grants like you pointed out and others, but really you do a heck of a lot of internal communications to keep people informed.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, that’s where at least 75% of my time is spent. We have 850 employees and it’s difficult to get people the information. You know, Scott, when you interviewed Scott Grimes, our mill manager, he gave a lot of information about his management philosophy and how important it is for everybody to be focused on safety.

You’re working together as a team, but when we’re so spread out, over 1200 acres, it’s hard to get to people. So we need to have systems in place for giving out the information they need to do their jobs. So that’s…

INTERVIEWER 2: And this ties right into what Scott said about he really likes to keep a family sort of atmosphere or connection with all the families here. You’ve got to talk to your family. You have to let them know what’s going on.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, so we’re trying to put things into place to make that easier. New employees, we get the names and we’re struggling right now with technical issues, but we usually put the pictures up there too. I know when I had been here for two weeks, they ran my name and my picture and welcome Erin Sheehan, communications manager. When I was out in the mill it was “Hey Erin”. I had never met him before, but people knew me because they saw it on the T.V. What a great feeling for a new employee.

INTERVIEWER 2: And what a wonderful way to get to know everybody and that certainly wasn’t something that was done, gosh, how long have they been doing that?

SHEEHAN: We’ve had the T.V. system for about four or five years. There’s always been a newsletter. Prior to that, we went through a lot of information last year just cleaning out old closets and found company newsletters from the mill that had been done in the 70’s. You know, you see a lot of the same names and faces that you might not have recognized, but then you realize that was the person in the early 70’s and you only know him now 30 years later.

So the company, the mill has always done that, but they used to do magazines and every quarter they mailed those out to the employees’ homes. We have the avenues to get people information faster and to get them more updated information and so we’re trying to use those every way we can.

INTERVIEWER 2: And employees respond to this. I imagine they like the attention and feeling like they’re important.

SHEEHAN: Absolutely, it’s critical for them to be able to do their jobs. If we have an issue, for instance for safety, if somebody goes to first aid because he’s cut his hand on a particular machine or has had some specific safety incident, then it’s really helpful to be able to get that information out to every employee and say this is what happened today.

Somebody got injured because of that. Here’s what you need to be careful of. You need to make sure you’re using this particular type of glove. If you’re doing a job similar to this, take a look around before you start, like identify those safety risks before you start and then you can address them. If, for instance, somebody slipped on a stair, it’s going to make everybody more cautious, make sure you use the hand rails, make sure you check. Is there something that’s in your way? Is the load too heavy? Do you need another way to get it down? Do you need to break the job down? Have a couple people help you, you address it up front, and you can do your job safely. So the communications is critical for safety?

INTERVIEWER 2: And for your customers also and I imagine that when…you’ve been through two mergers since you’ve been employed. There’s always communication issues every time you merge I would imagine. What would be some of those issues? You know, recently Wachovia and First Union merged, the banks. First Union bought Wachovia, but it’s still called Wachovia. They’ve got a major communication issue there (laughter). At least you’re still called International Paper.

SHEEHAN: Yeah and for the most part, those were the two major mergers that we did, but we have divisions, Expedax___ which is our distribution arm. They keep the name Expedax___. A couple of years ago, we bought Shorewood Packaging which is a packaging business and they kept the Shorewood Packaging name. You know, part of that is a concern for the customers. That’s who customers are accustomed to working with and so you keep that name.

On a local level, just keeping employees informed of it is important, but when you’re merging, it’s something that’s everybody is becoming better at forest products industries is doing a lot of it and you’re talking about taking 20,000 employees who are accustomed to being a part of Union Camp and all the history there. That’s great, you’re International Paper now and how do you do that. How do you take the best parts of the company that you’re merging with, how to take the best parts of Union or Champion and bring them into International Paper.

Then some of the best practices we have, to roll those out and to really let people know that while you’re becoming a part of International Paper, we’re excited to have you as part of this company. You know, International Paper and Union Camp, Champion, whoever you go into a merger with went into it because it’s a sound business decision. The market is needing this consolidation and we think that this is a good fit.

But giving those employees some sense of the history, but letting them know International Paper is just as committed to the community. We’re going to continue all of the community efforts that you started.

INTERVIEWER 2: How do you do that? Now you were in the corporate office when both of these mergers took place so I imagine most of the direction was coming from the corporate level.

SHEEHAN: We have a special communications team that goes into place every time we’re doing a merger and I’ve not been on the core team, but have gone out. When we did Union Camp facility in Tennessee. Then with the Champion merger, I went up to their headquarters to help at the employee meetings. The information that comes out, we have a team of IP employees that go out on the day.

We call it day one. The merger has been announced. It’s gone through, it’s been finalized and then there’s an official day that we say the change is happening today. We go there and have employee meetings and speak with employees, comfort them. We’ve learned to do a lot of research. Not just at Riegelwood, but I think it’s a very common thing, the mills are such a close-knit family.

Very frequently it’s the largest employer in the area and as such they do so much for the communities. The communities support the mill and allow them to operate, but the mill tries to recognize this by giving back, giving back money, the time their employees volunteer and things like that. We’ve become increasingly sensitive to maintaining that and saying you know, you’ll receive funds from our foundation. We’ll do that, but at the same time we want you to maintain the system that you had in place locally because this is a big disruption and we need to make sure that we maintain that commitment to the communities.

INTERVIEWER 2: It seems like you’ve been pretty successful, that is International Paper has been very successful in this region even though you’ll still hear people refer to this plant as Riegelwood. Not the town, but the plant. Like Federal was just getting around to where people were referring to it as Federal and now you’ve got IP. Do you still think you have some work to do in this area as far as getting people to associate International Paper as the Riegelwood plant?

SHEEHAN: I think in this area it seems pretty strong. People refer to it as International Paper for the most part. And it’s a fine line because we’re International Paper now, but this mill started as Riegelwood Paper Company and Federal Paperboard so there’s history that we need to respect there. Some people who came on to work here, you know, have worked with those companies and those companies built a foundation that International Paper wanted to be a part of.

So we try to maintain that. We don’t brush those things under the table. We try to celebrate those. You know, we’ve been in operation for 51 years. It hasn’t always been International Paper. International Paper has been here for the last six years. We can all celebrate what was started here and celebrate it as a mill. So we’re International Paper now and there’s a lot of great things we’ve started here as a part of that.

INTERVIEWER 2: Is International Paper the largest paper company in the world now? Is that true? It seems like I heard that somewhere. How many people does it employ worldwide?

SHEEHAN: Approximately 115,000.

INTERVIEWER 2: Wow. And there are International Paper companies across America and overseas too?

SHEEHAN: Yes, I don’t remember, I know that our customers are in at least 130 countries around the world. We have operations, I do not even remember, in pretty much every country in Europe we have operations. We’ve gone into Asia some and we’ve got some in South America. Our presence there was expanded through the Champion International merger. They had large operations in South America. Really in the last four or five years, we’ve seen the international part of it blossom more.

INTERVIEWER 2: Right, the 110,000 people?

SHEEHAN: 110,000 to 115,000.

INTERVIEWER 2: And that’s worldwide?


INTERVIEWER 2: That’s a lot. It really puts things in perspective. How do you, do you ever collaborate with the other paper companies or the large timber using companies like Georgia Pacific and Warehouser? Do you all do any collaborative efforts?

SHEEHAN: Speaking from my limited experience, there’s not been a whole lot. We do some work with them through our work with organizations such as, you know, the pulp and paper industry has some trade organizations and we are involved in some of them and so are others. In North Carolina, we’re active in the group called Manufacture Chemicals and Industry Chemicals up in Raleigh. Warehouser is also involved in that along with other, many other major manufacturers. So we have some there, but as far as partnering up, we don’t have a whole lot of that.

INTERVIEWER 2: What’s your greatest challenge as a communications officer Erin? Is it communicating to the employees, making sure you get the right message to them, dealing with a hard nose environmental group, getting the right word out to the media and we know how they like to take things and put their…putting the right spin on it because if you don’t, they will. It seems like you’ve got a lot of great challenges.

SHEEHAN: Probably the biggest one is…actually I’m going to go with two. It’s fun to work with and it’s very fulfilling to work with the grant process and to be able to help organizations, but at the same time, it’s personally frustrating because you can give out this money. This past year we gave out about $70,000 from the International Paper Foundation.

It was such a great feeling to have to be able to help local organizations, but at the same time you look at the $70,000 and what the community needs and you realize you can’t give everything they need. So that’s frustrating, that limitation. Any communication around safety, it’s difficult on a personal level as well. Your fear, you know, if there’s been an accident, if there was a fatality here, to communicate that out to people, communicate effectively with the grieving process in something like that would just be amazingly difficult.

It would hit you on a personal level as well. That would probably be something I’ve never experienced and hopefully will never experience. Everything else you deal with, it’s working, you do it on a technical level.

INTERVIEWER 2: How do you deal with some of the groups that are, you know, anti-pulp mill? Some of those groups are fairly aggressive. You hear about folks chaining themselves to fences and things of that nature. How do you deal with that sort of stuff? It seems like a very touchy situation.

SHEEHAN: We luckily don’t have a lot of that locally that we have to deal with.

INTERVIEWER 2: Did you experience that in Georgia at all?

SHEEHAN: No, we had some environmental groups there, but in Georgia, the mill where I was at was not even one of the top 10 largest employers in the town so it was a very industrial area and so we didn't have a lot of media attention. There’s a lot of education and it’s such an ongoing process. As much as you ever put out there about sustainable forestry and about the safety environmental processes we have in place, you’re not reaching everybody.

You can talk and you just keep trying to educate people and hopefully they’ll come around. We have some good partnerships with environmental groups and good partnerships with our communities. We can be excited about those and we can look at those. What information are we putting out to them, what seems to be, you know, convincing them. What message seems to be coming home to them and try to do that with other people, but it’s an ongoing process.

INTERVIEWER 2: What is the message that seems to be working now? It seemed like for a while, it was all downhill with environmental groups, but now, it’s just a sense I get, it just seems like we may be getting around the corner with this.

SHEEHAN: We do incredible things with the forestry. We have a division, a forestry resource division. We employ thousands of foresters who are devoted to finding better, more environmentally friendly ways to do things. You will not find a more avid group of environmentalists than you will in our foresters.

I had the opportunity this spring to go to what we call Forest Resources University and I got to learn about our forestry operation and go tour with the foresters and see our nurseries and it is mind boggling what they do and the level of detail they get down to. They do so much research into what is best for wildlife. How can they best preserve these habitats. They’re making changes to the way they’re doing any of the harvesting.

INTERVIEWER: Where’s this university located?

SHEEHAN: It’s just something we call Forest Resources University. Our Forestry Operations are headquartered in Savannah, Georgia, that’s where the corporate offices for forestry are and so that’s where we went down to. There are fairly large forestry operations throughout International Paper. There are several in the Savannah area in Georgia so we were able to go out in the field and see the nurseries where you just have rows of seedlings.

They’re trying to find the best sort of tree that they can grow, the one that’s going to be straight and have the right properties to it…when you go to the grocery store, you know what a Granny Smith apple looks like and it tastes a certain way. It doesn’t taste like a Red Delicious apple, it tastes like a Granny Smith apple and it looks like a Granny Smith apple, and you know, ways of doing that, that we can get trees that are going to be the best for the environment and for the company.

INTERVIEWER 2: So this university, not really a university per se, but it’s more of something, an experience, do they send all their employees or just their communication people?

SHEEHAN: It’s a very new thing. They send all of the forestry people through. For the forestry people, it lasts about two weeks. Communications, they took us through for four days, but with 115,000 employees, the company recognizes that part of the education process in getting our message out there is making sure the employees know. That way if the employees are out in the community talking with somebody, the person may make some comment and the employee can say, well actually International Paper planted two million trees last year.

They’re going to be the best advocates for this company, their best resource and they’re the ones who can most readily take our message out there. That’s the main reason communication is so important.

INTERVIEWER 2: Sounds like maybe taking some environmentalists on to the university of forestry would be a good idea. I mean really, show them what you’re doing out there. This concern for wildlife particularly is interesting. They really teach you how the forestry and wildlife interact with each other.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, it was…and we have forest resource people located here at the mill who do the Riegelwood area in this area in Brunswick and Columbus County. They know the tracks of land by name. We sat down with the neighbors for a dinner to discuss some things last week and we had our forestry person there.

One of the women who is a part of this group, Miss Blake, in her mid-80’s I think and has lived in the Riegelwood area her whole life and she was mentioning some land that she had bought with her first husband back probably in the 30’s or 40’s an the forester said, “Oh, the ‘such and such’ tract. I was looking at that one just the other day” and his familiarity with the land around here amazed me. He’s only been in this area for about a year. But he is right there and knows the tracts of land by apparently the name they had through the ages.

INTERVIEWER 2: You said that this lady lives here in Riegelwood that you were having dinner with. Was that just a personal friend or do you all do that, go out in the community and try to actually get to know folks?

SHEEHAN: You need to know folks. They’re our neighbors and for us to operate, we need to know them. They need to know us even more so. They need to be familiar with the mill. It’s in their backyard. We’re very close to them. We have a community advisory group. We meet with them about every other month throughout the year and it’s near neighbors.

People who live in Whiteville, we talk to them, find out what some of their concerns in the community. Do they have questions, I go, Scott goes, we have some other people from the mill. But it helps them know what’s going on out here and gives us an opportunity to educate them about some of the processes we have. In addition to that, if we have specific issues at the mill that we know our neighbors are going to have questions about, we know they’re going to be concerned about, we get them together and have dinner and discuss it, answer their questions, give presentations, whatever we need to do to educate them.

INTERVIEWER 2: What are some of the concerns that you’ve heard in our region from folks about the mill?

SHEEHAN: Most recently in this region the concerns have been economic concerns with the downturn of the economy and of course products industry took that downturn right with the rest of them. There was a concern about the long term viability. Columbus County depends on this mill.

We’re the largest employer, we’re the largest taxpayer. International Paper just in Columbus County through jobs, you know, our employees are spending their paychecks in the community and supporting other businesses there. We estimate that we generate about one billion dollars in Columbus County every year, which is a phenomenal impact there. So the concerns that we’ve heard recently are just, you know, how are we doing with the economy. Is the mill going to stay open, are we able to stay open.

There’s very widespread concern and we’ve seen an upswing in the economy. We’ve done a lot of cost saving efforts at the mill throughout the last year. Through those things and the upswing, we’ve seen some favorable changes in some of the pulp paper markets that we serve. We’re doing a lot better and are very excited about it.

INTERVIEWER 2: It makes you feel good when you’ve got some good news that you can give to people.

SHEEHAN: I’m buying a house in the area. I’m very excited (laughter).

INTERVIEWER 2: I’m sure that you probably tell people that every now and then. You’ve got enough confidence that you’re putting down some roots here.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, it’s a nice feeling. I like the area. The Riegelwood mill is great, you don’t get much better.

INTERVIEWER 2: Really! Why do you say that?

SHEEHAN: The location is fabulous, to be in North Carolina, the weather is very mild.

INTERVIEWER 2: Not like Wisconsin.

SHEEHAN: I don’t think I could move back up there it’s a little cold (laughter). I like my winter in the one week span and I go there over the holidays. That’s about enough (laughter). To be close to the beach is nice. The communities are very close. It’s a very comfortable place. When you go to work at the mill, you make friends very easily and you have 850 neighbors within a week because it’s a fairly close-knit group. You can feel fairly confident that when I’m out in the community and see people who work for International Paper.

If they don’t work at International Paper, their dad worked out there. They used to work out here in the summertime. Everybody’s got a connection to it. Moving someplace alone, I’ve moved a lot in the last three or four years, it’s very nice to come out and work at the mill. There’s a strong sense of community which you don’t get in a larger city.

INTERVIEWER 2: There are a lot of people that are connected with this mill. I’ve found that to be true also. I imagine you run into a lot of old codgers around here that want to tell you something about the mill. Have you heard anything over the years, any little stories that have stuck with you from folks that used to work here or still work here?

SHEEHAN: There’s a couple that still work here. That’s the best part of my job, the best part of working out at the mill, is the people that you interact with. There’s such a passion for what they do. You ask somebody what they do. They work on the Carolina King and they’re excited about that. They’re excited about the product they make. They know everything about this machine and that is so emerging.

INTERVIEWER 2: The Carolina King?

SHEEHAN: Is our pulp dryer. When it was built it was the world’s largest pulp dryer and it is still one of the very largest pulp dryers in the world. But the energy the people have and the passion they have is great. When I was out here about a month ago, we had a shrimp boil for all the employees for safety recognition. We had gone about 138 days I think without a reportable injury which is an amazing safety accomplishment for us.

So we had a shrimp boil to recognize that and some other safety things for all the employees. We had graveyard, day shift, evening shift, and graveyard the next night, we were out here. We were out here for a long time cooking a lot of shrimp for people. One of the employees I was working with was helping me out with it. We spent a lot of time talking and he mentioned that every dollar that he had made as an adult came from this mill.

He worked out here in the summertime when he was going through school and started to work here after that. He has kids in college now and any income he has ever known has been from this mill. It’s just such an amazing thing to think about. The other one, a couple of months ago, there was an employee out in our woods yard. He’s worked out here for decades. He probably came to work out here in the 60’s, early 70’s.

We have a process where you have to change a screen that separates the chips out. We get the chips and we have a screen where good chips fall through and the chips that are too big, where there’s a little bit of bark, that stays on top, but you have to change the screen out. You have to replace it and the process is very similar to an oven. It’s like a real narrow oven, where you hold the door and pull this screen out. He’s worked here for so long, by pulling that screen out, he’s seen some employees pinch their fingers because when you’re pulling it, you’ve got to kind of get your fingers under there and it creates a pinch point. You can get your skin caught and it can be a cut and we don’t want that.

So he said there’s got to be a better way to do this. So he drew up some different devices that he thought of. He took them to his supervisor and they talked about them, weeded them out and found one that they thought would work. So they went to our maintenance department and the maintenance department built one. So he now has this device that hooks up under it so it kind of works like a lever. It starts that chip screen out so you can pull it the rest of the way out.

He said it makes the job faster cause you’ve got the lever so it’s an easier job to do and it doesn’t create that safety hazard. To work at someplace for so long and to still be looking at a process and saying there’s a better, safer way to do that and not just sit there and think it day after day, but to go forward and do something about it.

You know, we publicized it. He said he’s getting calls from other mills now saying that they have that same sort of chip screen, can we get those plans because we’d like to build one here. He said he printed out the article and he took it home and showed it to his wife. He was so proud of it. And it’s just amazing.

INTERVIEWER 2: It sounds like he might be up for some special recognition or something. There’s some sort of safety award there. You said that you recognized the entire plant with a shrimp boil a short time ago. What other sort of incentives, employee recognition do you all do?

SHEEHAN: There’s a variety of ways. One of them is we have an employee of the month award. We do that every month. Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s a team of people so they get parking spots. When you take a look out at our parking lot, having a parking spot up in the front…(laughter) I would love to have a parking spot. So we do that, give them a gift certificate and a letter. It gets publicized.

In addition to that, a lot of the information comes word of mouth. And Scott may send a letter to an employee to their home and say, hey, so and so was talking about you in a meeting the other day, said you were doing this, that ‘s really great. That’s exactly what we want everybody to do and thank you for doing it and send that to their home. I’ve received them at home through my department sometimes and it’s a great feeling. Wow, they really do appreciate the work I’m doing so that makes a big statement.

We do a lot around safety. We might give out shirts, jackets, things like that when we achieve a big milestone. We’re coming up, our next big milestone is three million hours without a lost time incident which is about a year and a half without a lost time incident. It’s a great accomplishment for us and so we’ll have something big then.

INTERVIEWER 2: Will this be the longest time? Do you know the history of lost time incidents? That sounds like a pretty long time.

SHEEHAN: It is a long time.

INTERVIEWER 2: It could be setting a record.

SHEEHAN: I don’t know that it’s setting a record. I think that we’ve gone four million hours before, but I’m guessing, possibly have it confused with another mill. Two million we passed this spring and we’ve done that before and I think we’ve done three million before, but I’m not positive.

INTERVIEWER 2: It says a lot that this employee came up with this little safety device and that he suggested it like you said after so many years, still thinking about how to improve this, but it also shows that he has confidence in your internal communications system. I’ve known people that might think something all day long and they would never say anything about it because of thinking people won’t listen to me. So he’s got to have some confidence that he will be heard. Here, you have good communication. What kind of communication do you have in the corporate office? What sort of input do they have?

SHEEHAN: We talk to them all the time. Our corporate office is in Memphis.

INTERVIEWER 2: In Memphis, I thought they were in New York.

SHEEHAN: The company is headquartered, they moved from New York to Stamford, Connecticut last year because through one of the mergers, we acquired office space in Stamford, Connecticut, decided to move there. But our operational headquarters is in Memphis and that’s where we have the majority. There’s over 3,000 employees in Memphis.

That’s where our business is headquartered. That’s where all of our business support comes from. That’s where support functions like finance, HR, communications, all those are headquartered there.

INTERVIEWER 2: And you’ve got Elvis.

SHEEHAN: (Laughter) Of course. I lived in Memphis for two years and got to go to Graceland four times. No small draw. But we talk to them a lot. That’s where we get a lot of business support from and they’re very connected to the mills. There are over 40 mills within the United States of International Paper so there’s a lot of coordination from a business standpoint, the products that we make and where they’re going to get shipped to, coordinating those efforts.

INTERVIEWER 2: What do you see in looking at a crystal ball in the future of paper companies and communications in particular? I mean where do you see it going? You’re right on the edge of this big technological revolution that’s going to go somewhere.

SHEEHAN: The companies are going to continue to consolidate. We’re going to see more of that from an industry standpoint. From a communications standpoint, we’re going to see more and more in computers. Employees are going to have more and more access to the computers and functions that we currently have.

A lot of the HR functions, you’re going to be able to get those forms on line, print them out or even do them over the Internet and get them shipped off and eliminate some of the phone calls, time on hold, just like we’re seeing in the regular world. We’re going to see those changes come here as well.

It’s going to be easier to get instant access and it’s going to be more and more important to our employees not only to get the immediate information that they need to know about the focus and the goals that we have for the day at the mill, but also what’s going on with the company around the world. Just to get an idea of what’s happening and also I guess within the industry as well, to know what other companies are doing as well as International Paper.

INTERVIEWER 2: It sounds to me like the communications manager has a place here in the company. In fact, you probably might see more communications managers. Are you in a growth profession?

SHEEHAN: We have them in all the big mills. We have hundreds of smaller converting plants that might have a 100-200 employees and we don’t have them there. But we’re putting more and more communications into those through our corporate communications group. The information is going out through them over computers and things like that.

There’s always going to be more to do, but you know overall we’re getting more streamlined. We’re finding ways to do it better and to do it faster. I think that’s what we’re going to see. I’m going to have to get a lot more technically inclined so I can do even more work on the web pages and things like that. So that’s going to be where we’re headed.

INTERVIEWER 2: What makes a good communications officer? What kind of person? Scott was talking about, he has a chemistry degree, but he’s a people person. That’s got to be part of it. What other elements make a good communications manager?

SHEEHAN: You need to be able to juggle. There’s three aspects of the job. Within those, they’re 15 balls in the air at any given time so you juggle a lot. In addition to being a people person, I guess you have to really like the people and like the industry.


SHEEHAN: Yeah, in fact the first time I saw a paper machine, my first thought, that’s kind of like magic, can I see it again please. I would like to walk by there and see how that happens. I think a general fascination because that allows me to talk to employees. I’m amazed at the energy and the passion that they have. At some of the conditions, when it’s hot, growing up in the Midwest and up north, when I first moved down to Georgia, I couldn’t even go outside. I just thought it was painfully hot. There were employees who were working outside and the conditions that they work under. Time and time again and why are they out here. They’re out here for their families. They’re out here for their communities. This is what they’ve known and this is what they love to do.

It’s so amazing to have that and to see it. It’s so energizing to work around it. I’m never going to be able to grasp communications the way they grasp the paper machine. So if I just get to work by them and get to give them information that’s going to make their job easier, give them information that they might think, “Wow, I didn't know that we did that”, you know, that is energizing for me. I essentially work for 850 employees out here and that’s a really good feeling.

INTERVIEWER 2: So you really have to be able to embrace the industry and embrace the people that work in the industry to be an effective communications manager. Writing a good press release, there’s a lot more to it than that.

SHEEHAN: I don’t know how you can talk about it if you don’t love it. It would make it hard to get out of bed in the morning.

INTERVIEWER 2: So this would be in your eyes a very viable career option for somebody coming out of college with a communications degree. Would you have any advice for those folks?

SHEEHAN: Some days it’s hard, some days it’s very hard (laughter).

INTERVIEWER 2: What’s the most difficult issue that you’ve dealt with since you’ve been at Riegelwood?

SHEEHAN: We went through a reorganization in February and that was hard. While not many people were affected by it, when the information first came out, we eliminated over 100 jobs. It turned out to be a very few number of people and it was done through retirement and attrition, but we didn't know that right up front. Getting the information out there and getting it to people with sensitivity and understanding their questions and helping them understand and just trying to get, as soon as you know something, letting them know.

Sometimes if no decision has been made, if there’s been no action for a few days, getting information out there that says we’re working on it, we just don’t know yet and letting them know that we’re still trying. But seeing so many people so concerned is difficult. It’s very difficult. Then you have it from a personal side too because you know these people and you don’t want anything to happen. It kind of breaks your heart. It was difficult. You get through it with the most sensitivity you can.

With helping Scott and so many of the managers here who have an engineering background. Helping people express their concern and helping employees see that is very important to be able to do. It was hard. It was hard on everybody.

INTERVIEWER 2: So that reorganization was the most difficult thing that you’ve done since you’ve been here. Getting the word out to the employees, the media and probably some took a negative spin on that. Well maybe not negative, but they didn't have all the facts.

SHEEHAN: Well they were very concerned. We tried to go proactive and let the media know what we were doing and they actually, we had excellent coverage both in Whiteville and in Wilmington. We work a lot with the media. We got to know the reporters and worked with them. We had them out here, they toured the mill so they would have an understanding of what it is when they go to write about it.

You can’t write about something you’ve never seen or toured. They got familiar with it and worked with us. We were able to get a lot of good information out there.

INTERVIEWER 2: Do you do that on a regular basis, media tours and that sort of thing?

SHEEHAN: We don’t have a lot of turnover with our reporters and once you’ve seen it, you’ve kind of seen it (laughter). I know the reporters, the news reporter in Whiteville, I believe they’ve all seen the mill or been involved in some way. We keep up that contact and if I’m getting calls from other papers or if I’m getting calls from the newspaper about something, if somebody hasn’t called…I have a reporter in Whiteville who hasn’t called us because he hasn’t gotten to it that day or something like that, I’ll pick up the phone and give him a call.

It’s just a matter of time until he calls me so I may as well call him and let him know what he needs to know. So we work with that relationship because they’re our ally to get that information out again both to our employees and our customers in the community.

INTERVIEWER 2: The community, do you do a lot of VIP tours of the mill, not just with the media? I actually got one myself a couple of years ago. Do you do much of that?

SHEEHAN: Not a VIP tour per se, but we do allow groups to come in and tour the mill. There are safety requirements you have to go through. Outside of those, we allow people to tour the mill. We used to do a lot more, but we have fewer people here now and our time resources is limited some so as our schedules allow, we go ahead and do tours when people request them.

INTERVIEWER 2: Communications is just an ongoing thing. You can never at the end of the week say well my job is done, I don’t have to worry about this anymore.

SHEEHAN: Not even close. It’s ongoing. There’s always going to be a better way to do something. If you’re not fighting a fire, you’re doing something proactive. There’s always something.

INTERVIEWER 2: Paul, anything you’d like to ask?

INTERVIEWER: As a young woman, graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in liberal arts, especially in English, what do you see as your career pattern from here on? Five years from now, 10 years from now, got any specific goals, particular interests?

SHEEHAN: I love being out in the mill so I want to stay in the mill for a good number of years. Prior to this, I’ve been in every job for a year. I was very excited this June, when June came and went and I’d been in this mill for a year and nobody said peep about moving me (laughter). I want to stay here. There’s a lot to do. There’s a lot to do proactively that I’d like to get in place, new programs to start and I’d like to do that and be here for several years.

My next step after this will probably be to go back to our corporate offices and manage communications on a divisional level, but I’d like to stay within the business where I’m working with the mills, finding better ways to give the communications managers there the information they need.

INTERVIEWER: It’s trite, but it seems to be true, you found your real niche in life, haven’t you?

SHEEHAN: I like it a lot.

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