LEE -- Onyx Specialty Papers is no longer in survival mode.

More than four years after Patricia Begrowicz and Christopher Matthews purchased Mead Westvaco’s South Lee operations, Onyx’s co-owners say the town’s only remaining active paper mill is on the road to slow, steady, and hopefully, long-lasting growth.

Since the local takeover in December 2009, Onyx has increased its labor force from 123 to 150 employees. The company has also experienced a 9 percent growth in sales since December 2010.

"We definitely were in short-term survival at first -- it was a bad time in the economy," said Begrowicz, the company’s president. "Now my horizon is 10 years out; building a strong enough foundation here for the future."

Part of that future is hiring young talent, from engineers to those willing to work their way up the ranks.

Onyx has 22 employees under the age of 30, including 25-year-old Kristina Farrow of Pittsfield, who was hired last June to work on one of the manufacturing machines.

"Advancement here is possible," said Furrow, a college graduate who holds a chemistry degree. "They also truly care about you -- I honestly didn’t expect that."

Onyx makes products used in the automotive, construction and medical industries, but is always willing to manufacture something new.

"We’re constantly making engineered products using traditional paper-making equipment," said Mathews, Onyx’s executive vice president.

Onyx Specialty Papers has bucked a trend in Lee that began almost six 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 another one in Lenox Dale, putting another 167 men and women on the unemployment line.

MeadWestvaco continued to operate the century-old Hurlbut Willow Mill off Route 102 near the Stockbridge town line, which Onyx currently occupies. But the other paper mill closings left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the future of the plant located on 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 Willow and Laurel facilities. Onyx currently uses the Laurel Mill, built in 1956, as a warehouse until it can find a more productive use for that facility.

At Onyx, Begrowicz, Mathews and their employees control their own destiny instead of having a corporate giant like MeadWestvaco control it for them. They can take advantage of their mill being located next to a railroad line and situated only minutes from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"We don’t stand on our duffs," said Jim Roots, a 33-year veteran at the mill. "We look at where we are and set strong goals [because] we have customers coming to us."

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

To reach Dick Lindsay:
RLindsay@berkshireeagle.com
(413) 496-6233