West Linn Paper Company continues to carve its place in an ever-changing market

SUBMITTED PHOTO: DAVE DAVIDSON - As the city's largest employer, West Linn Paper Company prioritizes the well-being of its workforce. Here, Chief Operating Officer Brian Konen (third from right) stands with members of the paper machine crew: from left to right, Jeremy Blair, Bill Benz, Tom Nodurft, Chris King, Chris Swift and Ron Benz. Even now, more than 125 years after the West Linn Paper Company mill was built, Chief Operating Officer Brian Konen is convinced that some residents don’t know it exists.

It’s almost unfathomable, given the mill’s history and the fact that the West Linn Paper Company is the city’s largest employer. But the mill is also covered by foliage in its spot along the Willamette River, just next to the Old Oregon City-West Linn Arch Bridge, and to travel down the ramp to the mill’s parking lot is a bit like finding a secret passageway.

If you do make your way down there, you’ll find a company that continues to expand in the face of a volatile market.

“We don’t plan on going anywhere, let’s put it that way,” Konen said. “Our employees are the company. They’re stakeholders, they get profit sharing — they got paid out profit sharing 11 out of the last 13 years I think — and so that’s our first and foremost interest and care: to make sure we have a long-term sustainable business.”

The mill first opened under the name “Willamette Pulp and Paper” in 1889. After several more name changes, it became West Linn Paper Company in 1997.

West Linn Paper specializes in coated free-sheet web paper, and is currently the only mill on the West coast with that particular focus. Coated free-sheet paper is most commonly used for “high-end advertising materials,” direct mail, magazines and catalogs. According to Konen, West Linn Paper occupies 38 percent of the market for free-sheet paper on the West coast.

“As far as the mill goes, this grade (of paper) is probably only declining two or three percent a year when it comes to volume by tons (produced),” Konen said. “We’re working to diversify. We did our recycled grades eight or ten years ago, and grew it to 50,000 tons. Now we’re working on some different packaging grade types.”

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The mill, which opened in 1889, currently operates with 250 employees along the banks of the Willamette River.

The overarching goal is to keep the paper machines running at all times, ensuring that the company’s 250-person workforce remains in place.

“For the economics to work, we have to run the machines full-time,” Konen said. “So we have to continue to evolve our product mix into different products to continue to have that opportunity to run full-time. … We’re diversifying into more types of specialty grades that allow us to run nearly full (time).”

That includes the packaging paper you might find wrapped around the box of a new TV, as well as “fragrance” sheets used for advertising in fashion magazines and the ink jet digital grade paper used for targeted marketing campaigns.

Beyond those expanded efforts, the key to West Linn Paper’s continued growth has been its unique position in the West coast market.

“We’re the last ones on the West coast of the U.S. to make this type of paper,” Konen said. “Time to print continues to shrink and shrink and shrink. People want to advertise, they want it out today, they want it out tomorrow, they want instant marketing out there. That’s what has been key to our success.”

In the midst of it all, West Linn Paper also occupies a unique space in the ongoing debate over the City’s Arch Bridge area planning project. Konen has been a vocal supporter of West Linn’s concept plan for riverfront redevelopment, much of which would take place on properties owned by West Linn Paper. That plan was approved by the City Council in late 2014. Since then, however, a new council has been immersed in debate over how to move forward, and many of the staff members who worked with West Linn Paper have since departed.

“When the (old) police station closed, we were working with (former Community Development Director) Chris Kerr and (former city planner) Sara Javoronok,” Konen said. “And we said, ‘Look, the Arch Bridge is fixed up there, and we’re willing to explore if there’s an opportunity up there as long as you believe, like we believe, that first and foremost we’re going to have the mill be sustainable. We’re not going to do anything that impacts the work of our people here, and our ability to have access to the mill and produce our products and ship our products.’”

Now, with the original concept plan more or less abandoned, the City Council is exploring the possibility of acquiring riverfront properties through a bond measure while also polling property owners about preemptive zoning measures.

No matter what type of development is planned for the area, Konen’s primary concern is traffic and access to the mill.

“We have 35 trucks coming in and out of the mill every day,” he said. “So for us, we have to be able to do our business. Anything that happens up there, I’ve got to get my trucks in and out.”

Konen also wants to protect the value of the unused property behind the old police station that — as he points out — was loaned to the City free of charge for parking for police and City employees.

The City has now honed in on that property — a rare unoccupied open space — as one of the key spots for future riverfront development.

“We want to make sure we get what our property is worth,” Konen said.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the Arch Bridge plan, Konen said the company remains committed to working with the City.

“The City values us,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any disconnect there.”

Meanwhile, the company will continue to carve out its place in a market that is, at times, misunderstood.

“People have the mindset that the paper industry is kind of this old dinosaur, and I think that’s really not the case,” said Jill Crossley, West Linn Paper’s director of marketing and customer service. “There’s a lot of ingenuity and development and entrepreneurship, and being able to make sure it’s sustainable for the long term.”

“We’re very proud of what we do,” Konen said.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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