More job opportunities return to Niles

Published 2:37 am Wednesday, September 19, 2007

By By ERIKA PICKLES / Niles Daily Star
NILES – Thanks to efforts of many people in the Niles community, a new business has been created, which could potentially mean a lot more jobs to area residents in the near future.
Bear Lake Fibre, LLC recently began production in an 82,000-square-foot leased building, which is located in the same facility as Simplicity Pattern.
Steve Bartocci, CEO and Managing Member of Bear Lake, purchased the paper machine assets, including the related equipment like fork lifts and maintenance equipment, to start what he hopes will bring more jobs to the area.
Bartocci, who began work at Simplicity 11 years ago, said he had always thought of buying the paper mill, as talk about Simplicity moving was taking place even 10 years ago.
"I always told myself that if they left, I would want to do something with this. There's so much potential here and so many things you can do," he said.
With that in mind, and the recent announcement of Simplicity Pattern moving to Wisconsin, Bartocci knew it was time to do something. He approached a few former Simplicity employees about an idea, along with Sharon Tyler, Executive Director of the Southwestern Michigan Economic Growth Alliance, Inc., and Neil Miller, President of Small Business Development at 1st Source Bank. All were in favor and now Bartocci is creating something great for the Niles community.
About the company
Bear Lake Fibre, LLC, which is owned by a group of private investors, recycles paper and turns it back into paper for industrial use. The plant cannot make super fine, smooth paper, like computer paper, because the machine is not configured to produce those grades. However, they make a variety of other paper, including tissue paper which is used to wrap fragile items (like glass or ceramics) at stores. Also, paper towels, like the kind you see at a gas station used for window washing, can be made. Some of the paper looks and feels like tissue paper you would wrap a gift in, only it's a little thicker. It can be used for many other purposes as well.
The process of making the paper is a long one and is done by employees who have worked in or with paper mills before.
"The guys who are with me now are the reason this is happening. Some of them have been employees with Simplicity for over 30 years and they know what they are doing. They know how to run these machines and they were willing to give it a shot and see where this could take us," Bartocci said.
He explained that he gets recycled paper from companies all over the United States who have no use for their paper for one reason or another. Old grocery bags, deli bags, newspapers, file folders, even tax form papers are brought to the plant in bulk loads.
"It's really amazing how much paper is thrown away on a daily basis. If we can recycle this once again and reuse it, not only are companies using recycled paper, but it's helping the environment as well," he said.
Even waste paper from actual diapers – yes baby diapers – is used. Part of a diaper that we do not see is what goes inside of it, which protects a baby from leaks. This part, however, has to be 100 percent clean in order to use.
"Just one speck of dirt on one small sheet of this paper ruins an entire truckload, no questions asked. Although the paper never touches the baby's skin, diapers have one of the highest quality requirements, so just one small speck can ruin an entire load," which is where Bartocci and the employees come in. The company will purchase pound upon pound of the "no good" paper and turn it into a good thing.
On batteries, a small strip of paper is used when production of a battery is made. The problem is that the strip is so small, and is cut out of a large sheet and a lot of paper ends up going unused. Again, this is where Bear Lake comes in. They purchase this paper, which may have otherwise just been tossed in a landfill, and make more paper out of it.
Another positive about Bear Lake is that it recycles all of its water. "We use around 7 million gallons of water everyday, but almost all of it is recycled. We can use it over and over again," he said.
How the paper is made
It's not a simple process by any means and can take a while. First, the old paper is placed in a tank called a hydrapulper. This mixes water and fibre together like a blender, creating something that looks like a bunch of paper towels clumped together in a bath of water. Next, it goes to a holding tank, where more water is added. Eventually, after it makes its way through all of the tanks, it ends up in the paper machine, which has several processes to remove the water from the paper including evaporation, then brings it together to form large rolls of paper.
"We are still in a training session right now, so these guys are getting to know how everything works," he said as he pointed to a few employees who were working around the paper machine.
Mike Booth, a Simplicity employee for 38 years, is one worker who agreed to join Bear Lake. Bartocci said it's guys like Booth who will be a key to the company's success and production.
"There are only about six guys total who are able to run this place right now. We have the second generation guys in here, who are training and learning all the steps," Bartocci explained.
After the paper is made, it's either stored for future clients to be able to purchase or shipped to companies awaiting its arrival.
"The papermill is not an easy environment to work in, but these guys are still in here, learning and ready to make something happen," Bartocci added.
High hopes for the future
Bartocci and others have high hopes for the future and would like to see this company not only do well for its employees, but for the community as well.
"The real story behind this is the Niles community," Bartocci said. "Right now, with this just starting out, it's high-risk. But former employees of Simplicity were ready to step in and take a chance and see if this can work.
Plus we've had so much support from others and it can eventually create more jobs for the community."
Tyler praised Bartocci for stepping in at a time when the community most needs it.
"Niles has had its fair share of hits lately with the announcement of two big factories closing. What Steve is doing is making a positive situation out of a negative one," she said.
Miller was also pleased with the hard work that's going into making something like this happen.
"Niles is a great community and this is a chance to add jobs," he said.
Bartocci said the business will start small, with around 15 employees, most former Simplicity workers. In time, he hopes to expand to 30, then, depending on how fast the company's production grows, he said even more jobs are possible.
He said companies are already asking him to put in converting equipment, which would allow Bear Lake to make and offer more to its clients.
"I also would like to provide paper to local companies. Not only will it keep the prices down, but it benefits our community as well," Bartocci said.
"I told these guys that if they weren't coming with me, I wasn't going to do this. They stepped in, were ready to work and we just hope this to be something positive for the community. It's a total community effort, with help from Sharon and Neil and the guys who agreed to come on board. Everyone has faith in this community," he added. Bartocci graduated from Western Michigan University in 1981 with a Paper Science and Engineering degree.
Bear Lake Fibre is taking applications. Anyone interested in applying should do so at the Michigan Works office in Dowagiac.