Made in the Berkshires | Onyx Specialty Papers: Paper maker adapts to a changing market


Photo Gallery | Onyx Specialty Papers in Lee

LEE — Onyx Specialty Papers Inc. thrives in today's manufacturing economy by blending experience, new hires, modern technology and a willingness to meet customer demand for new products.

Under new ownership since December 2009 at MeadWestvaco's former operations in South Lee, Onyx is constantly adapting the highly engineered papers in manufactures. Onyx's materials are found in kitchen and bath products, automotive parts, fine art papers, in the medical industry field and in a variety of other sectors.

"It's not so much about new markets opening up, but reinventing within markets," said Onyx's executive vice president Christopher Mathews.

Company management also understands the need to balance veteran workers and new employees to ensure that Onyx stays in business.

Of Onyx's 150 current employees, 27 were hired over the past six years. The majority of Onyx's workforce ranges in age from 22 to 50, according to Mathews.

"We're not sitting with a lot of people five years away from retirement," he said. "If a lot of people retire at once, you have a brain-drain."

Stabilization plan

When Mathews and co-owner Patricia Begrowicz purchased Lee's only remaining active paper mill, they first stabilized the company by keeping the customer base they had inherited supplied with existing orders. Within five years, Onyx was no longer in survival mode, but working on new products to build a foundation for the future, said Begrowicz, who is Onyx's president.

New product creation begins above the factory floor with an experienced research development team infused with young people like Ethan Lily, a products development engineer. The 22-year-old Lenox native graduated from the University of Southern California eight months ago and is getting a handle on his role within the company.

"My job is like that of a screenwriter, you produce a screenplay that's interpreted by the director and shot with certain equipment," he said.

While Lily expects the products he's working on will become commercially viable within three years, he still sees the fruits of his current labors.

"I am pleased with the data I am collecting," he said. "You don't need dollar signs to see success."

The new products augment Onyx's staple of products which include 80 different papers for automotive use and 2,500 various color schemes for its decorative line of papers.

"We make 60 different colors of blue," said John Healy, a 34-year company man who dates back to the MeadWestvaco days.

As Onyx updates and expands its product line the company must also update its equipment and the training of employees.

The advent of a more computer-driven manufacturing process means raising the sophistication of the workers' skill set.

"We tend to be more point and click," said Tony Genzabella, the company's manufacturing trainer and safety coordinator. "Last year, we began training people how to troubleshoot."

After more than two years with the company, Kristina Farrow of Pittsfield underwent six months of training, then took and passed a certification test so she could start working on one of the machines. Farrow credits her veteran co-workers for helping her learning the ropes — especially troubleshooting. After six months of training, Farrow took and passed a certification test.

"[Onyx] put the right people to do the training, it really helped me a lot," she said.

Roger Lipford, one of Onyx's peer trainers, finds his success as a teacher depends on whom he is instructing.

"As long as somebody has a good attitude and is willing, I enjoy doing it," said Lipford, a 17-year veteran of the Hurlbut Mill.

Seniority still has its place at Onyx especially when positions open up. Those with longevity have the first shot at job openings, but ascension within the ranks has quickened in recent years.

"We're seeing people move up quicker than ever before," Genzabella noted.

The communication within the company has also improved under the new management. From president down to machine worker, everyone must be aware of product changes and problems that occur during the manufacturing process.

"The work is more collaborative because product has to be developed faster — speed to market," Mathews said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233


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