Union representatives pull out of plans for employee buyout of mill

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; A proposed employee buyout of the former International Paper Natchez mill has ended, officials with the company working on the plan said Tuesday.

&uot;It is with much sadness that Natchez Fiber ends its efforts or puts them on hold,&uot; said Monty Payne, chairman of the board of Natchez Fiber Inc., which was organized months ago to purchase the 50-year-old mill.

Yet those close to the deal said they will continue to work together with IP representatives to find a use for at least some of the mill property.

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Payne, international representative of union group PACE International, and former IP employees on the Natchez Fiber board of directors expressed some hope that another plan could emerge.

Payne said the company &uot;was and is very close&uot; to success and would work with any other agency with a plan to save some of the more than 600 jobs that were lost in July. That’s when the mill closed due to a softening market for its product, chemical cellulose.

&uot;We are aware of another possibility but can’t give any details,&uot; Payne said. &uot;But to my knowledge, it is not an employee group.&uot;

Natchez Fiber had worked for months with commercial banks, venture capitalists and local, state and federal officials to raise funds to buy the mill through an employee stock option plan, or ESOP.

Natchez Fiber board member Darryl Cooley, a 35-year employee at the mill, said the new corporation’s founders will look for any opportunity to assist in other buyout efforts.

&uot;We would like to have seen an ESOP work there, but we’ve made a pledge to help whatever organization or agency is trying to put something together,&uot; Cooley said.

The recent resignation of Bob Taylor, a former IP Natchez mill manager, as CEO of Natchez Fiber was the turning point leading to an end to the company’s buyout efforts, Payne said.

&uot;We had a plan, and we had a leader. Bob Taylor put many hours into this to make it successful,&uot; Payne said. &uot;When he left, we had a big hill to climb.&uot;

Taylor had agreed to give six months to the effort, said consultant Frank Adams of Asheville, N.C., who has worked to facilitate the negotiations between Natchez Fiber and IP.

&uot;He committed to six months, and he stayed for longer than that,&uot; Adams said. &uot;Time ran out on us. We were so close to having all the financial backing lined up.&uot;

Fred Middleton, immediate past chairman of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce and the Natchez Fiber liaison with government officials, said the commitment of former IP employees and the Natchez business community was invaluable in moving the project along.

&uot;I know good things will come from this,&uot; Middleton said. &uot;We’re a better community, a stronger community because of this. Just because you didn’t cross the finish line in first place, you crossed the line, and that speaks volumes for those men and women at the mill.&uot;

George Robinson, a former mill employee and a union leader, said he was disappointed to have to walk away from the project. He hopes another plan can succeed. &uot;The bottom line is jobs for this community.&uot;

Former IP employee Bill Hancock had worked at the mill since 1976. He has been involved in the ESOP from the beginning.

&uot;We were very close, and we still are very close. If another effort arises, we will try to help,&uot; Hancock said. &uot;We’re the troops. If another general comes along, we’re ready.&uot;

The ESOP effort has cost more than $100,000 in real dollars but adds up to at least $500,000 if all the volunteer hours and in-kind donations are counted, Payne said.

The assistance of the Natchez Chamber was crucial to the work of Natchez Fiber, he said. And the relationship showed that labor and business can work together.

&uot;It was so refreshing to see someone who represents the business community come to the union hall and sit down with us and say, ‘what are you trying to do,’ and that’s what Fred Middleton did,&uot; Payne said. &uot;He listened, and then he went back to the business community and said, ‘these guys have an idea.’&uot;

Laura Godfrey, Chamber president, said the collapse of the ESOP negotiations adds another challenge but does not change the commitment to improving the Natchez economy.

&uot;We try to grow businesses in Natchez and Adams County. There are a lot of niche markets here that are unfilled,&uot; Godfrey said. &uot;We want to support anyone who wants to stay here. We’ll continue to fight.&uot;