By Dick Lindsay, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Updated: 12/26/2010 08:09:57 AM EST

LEE — Onyx Specialty Papers Inc. has added jobs and boosted the local economy, one year after local management bought the town’s only remaining paper mill from a corporate giant.

Onyx co-owners Patricia Begrowicz and Christopher Mathews have increased payroll from 123 to 133 employees since purchasing MeadWestvaco’s South Lee operations in November 2009 for $3.72 million.

In addition, sales of Onyx products used in the automotive, construction and medical industries rose 33 percent, compared with the last year the mill was under MeadWestvaco’s control. The company’s growth was mainly due to developing new products and improved relationship with its 100 active customers, according to Begrowicz.

“It’s much more expensive bringing on new customers than to retain and cultivate the ones we got,” said the company president.

Furthermore, company officials attribute their initial success to the automotive market rebounding in 2010, a sound financial plan, and the willingness to invest in local manufacturing, when similar businesses bailed out.

“Pat and I knew the business and our employees so well, we saw the value of this mill,” said Mathews, Onyx’s executive vice president.

Keeping paper manufacturing alive in Lee has earned local and state accolades for Onyx.

“Thank goodness they are doing well,” said Lee Board of Selectmen Chairman Gordon Bailey. “They have quietly filled the shoes of the company that left.”
Last month, the Massachusetts Alliance for Economic Development honored Onyx as its top performer for job retention and expansion this year in Western Massachusetts, an award well deserved according to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli.

“I call Onyx a rags-to-riches story,” said Pignatelli.

Onyx Specialty Papers has bucked a trend in Lee that began three years ago, when MeadWestvaco began the exodus of paper mill jobs from the once mostly blue-collar town. In December 2007, the Virginia-based corporation cut its local work force by 90 jobs when it closed the Laurel Mill along Route 102. The following May, Schweitzer-Mauduit International shut down all three of its paper mills in Lee and one in Lenox Dale, putting another 167 men and women on the unemployment line.

While MeadWestvaco still operated the century-old Hurlbut Mill off Route 102 near the Stockbridge town line, the mill closings left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the future of the plant along the Housatonic River.

Begrowicz and Mathews, who had been general manager and vice president of sales, respectively, for MeadWestvaco in South Lee, stepped up to buy both the Hurlbut and Laurel facilities. Onyx is currently using the Laurel Mill as a warehouse until a more productive use is found for the facility built in 1956.

Once the sale went through, the new owners and their employees felt relieved they were now in control of their own destiny.

“Since they bought the company, things have drastically improved,” said Corey Murach of Pittsfield, a five-year employee at the Hurlbut Mill. “It’s nice having the owners upstairs as things are usually taken care of right away.”

“They appreciate us doing our jobs and want that family atmosphere back,” said 12-year veteran of the South Lee mills, Jason Zerbato of Pittsfield.

Local ownership provided the stability many Onyx employees were looking for that was lacking under MeadWestvaco’s control. Prior to coming to South Lee, operations manager John Healy spent 25 years working for MeadWestvaco in Potsdam, N.Y., England and elsewhere.

“If this place closed, I was leaving again,” Healy said.

Another veteran mill worker of 21 years, Pam Ferris, said leaving the factory wasn’t an option, no matter who owned it.

“We’re never going to make what we do now,” said Ferris, color services supervisor for Onyx’s decor paper. “Many of us looked at other options and decided to stay put.”

The loyalty paid off as Onyx workers have received pay raises and bonuses under the new ownership, and starting Jan. 1, Onyx will offer a matching 401k retirement plan.

“Onyx reminds me of KB Toys when I first started there, small and growing,” said company comptroller, Charles Stengl. Stengl was treasurer at KB Toys and worked 28 years for the Pittsfield-based company until it folded in April 2009.

If Onyx is to build on its first year success, company officials said they must further reduce energy and other production costs and compete aggressively for more business.

“We’re a very disciplined group,” Healy said. “We’re always looking to improve knowing we can’t sit back and just enjoy what we’ve done.”