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USG plant celebrates 100 years

Touring the USG mill in Cloquet this week, Jenna Leger met every encounter with a greeting and a smile. She inquired about employees' families, vacations and lives in general. She knew them all not only by name, but details of their lives, too.

"We call ourselves a family, the USG family, and we mean that," Leger said.

Married 11 years and pregnant with the couple's second child due this summer, Leger is the plant manager at the ceiling tile manufacturer located on the banks of the St. Louis River.

As the USG plant celebrates its 100th anniversary in Cloquet's West End with a communitywide ice cream social 4-8 p.m. Tuesday in Dunlap Island Park, Leger and colleagues opened the door to the Pine Knot News for a rare tour earlier this week.

Employees and families had their turn to celebrate privately with a plant tour and a company meal on Thursday.

"It's something we feel really excited about," said Laura Bakken, raw materials specialist and event planner for the mill. "It's so neat to see how we've been a part of the community for so long."

With 19 acres under its roofs, the plant appears larger inside than it does outside. On display were the four production lines, massive dryers and dust collection systems, a cavernous warehouse filled with outgoing pallets of shrinkwrapped products, and a tangible culture of respect and dignity that's aimed at safety.

"Safety exists at a higher level than anything else that we do," Leger said. "It is the No. 1 most important thing to me and to all employees in this plant."

Throughout its lifetime - first as the Wood Conversion Company in 1923 making wood fiberboards and then Conwed, beginning in the 1960s, making a wider array of construction materials, including the mill's first ceiling tiles - the company has lived in the shadow of the nearby paper mill. The paper mill has always had two and three times as many employees as USG's roughly 300, and carries a public profile situating the paper mill as top dog in a two-mill town.

Quieter about its business and "existing on our own scope, steadily churning away," Leger said, the USG plant is poised for a bigger reveal in Year 100.

Behind the scenes, it hosts an employee fishing tournament and rents the movie theater for employees and their families. It supports community events and programming, sits on important boards, and does the things a good citizen employer tends to do. But now, further removed from its troubled history with asbestos and the negative health impacts it caused for a generation of workers, the mill is eager to tell more of its story.

"It's a good time to get out in the community and make sure we're doing a little bit more," Leger said. "It's an important piece of who we are."

Leader at the top

A dual Canadian/U.S. citizen, Leger (pronounced "la-Zhier") is two years into her second stint at the Cloquet mill, having worked at five USG plants across North America in her 11 years since joining the company as an engineer out of college.

"I love this job, and we have a lot going on at the plant," she said. "We have wonderful people - this really connected workforce. It was an exciting opportunity for me and my family to come back and be the plant manager here."

Like a lot of folks inside Cloquet's USG plant, Leger's dad worked for the company too, in Canada, retiring as a plant manager himself.

During the tour, her interactions showed her to be an engaged listener, a marker of a strong modern leader - one who can get the most out of production without losing touch with the humanity of the workforce.

"They're working in a place that cares for them and keeps them safe, so they can go back to their families every single day in the same way that they came to us," Leger said.

Following family

Familial connections at the USG plant run rampant. Spouses, cousins, one generation of a family following another. At one point, there was a family with four generations working simultaneously at the plant.

Bakken orders the rock wool, recycled newsprint and perlite that arrives on rail from as near as Red Wing and as far away as California and Mississippi and is used in manufacturing ceiling tiles.

Her father worked more than 40 years for USG in Cloquet. She first joined the plant as a vacation replacement before moving into shipping, accounting and now raw materials.

"Seeing how my dad built a career here, it opened doors for me," Bakken said. "I just found that there were so many opportunities that were here."

Tyler Burggraff has spent seven years at USG, and is a raw materials supervisor. His father is a supervisor on the Constellation line, which produces high-performing, high-acoustics ceiling tiles.

"A word that comes to mind when thinking of USG is stability," Burggraff said. "My father has been here 35 years, and that was food on the table for us, and now it's providing for my family, for my son."

Burggraff said he never found the same stability working in construction. Starting at the mill was an eye opener, revealing innovation and "a lot of smart people here," he said. He saw growing up how those employees became more than co-workers to his father.

"One thing that stood out was the friendships my dad established with his co-workers here," Burggraff said. "It wasn't just a workforce. It's a family too, and I feel that now working here."

More than 20 percent of the workforce has 25 years of experience or more.

"We're really proud of that," Leger said. "We're proud of the fact that we have people who continue to build their career with us."

Joe Barrett is the process involvement lead working to solve problems and make processes more efficient. He's got 35 years at the mill, which remains non-unionized.

"I've always felt that USG treats the people very good, more than fair," Barrett said, citing ample vacation time, and in-house celebrations for work anniversaries and safety milestones. "They treat us well."

Touring USG

Standing atop the scaffolded apron of a ceiling tile machine isn't so different from standing next to a paper machine.

"Everything comes in as a slurry," operations manager Matt Boyer said, describing a water-heavy mixture of ingredients that runs on a web through a network of heavy rollers and dryers to come out as sheets of raw ceiling tile. From there large sheets are trimmed to 4-foot-by-4-foot pieces that rapidly enter the finishing end of the line. Each sheet spends only 6 to 7 minutes in finishing, where they're coated with paint and pass along conveying rollers through processes that create different patterns, edges, sizes, and additional coatings, including the popular bright white laminate.

"It's a continuous manufacturing process," Boyer said. "Once it starts it never stops until it's packaged and ready to go on a truck."

The products appear in hospitals, schools and anywhere there is construction, including a small residential component.

Walking in the plant offices, Boyer pointed out a trend in hallway ceilings - a narrow center channel of inlaid lighting and air ducts with broad, white ceiling tiles to the wall on either side of the channel. It's less patchwork and more elegant than ceilings of yore.

Boyer led the tour, following a pedestrian path through the vast mill. The sweet scent in parts of the mill belonged to corn starch used in the process, he said.

A raw sheet of tile is punched with 30,000 pins in a proprietary process. The tiny holes aren't quite microscopic, and they're designed to absorb sound waves. Leger described two important tile functions - dampening sound in a room and quelling sound from traveling room to room.

"You can really tell the difference in a restaurant environment when you're in a room with ceiling tile and a room with no ceiling tile and open plenum," Leger said, referring to an open floor plan.

As Boyer paced through the tour, he joked that he never has trouble getting in his steps. He'll walk the plant many times a day. He noted how the river water used in the process, any spoiled tile, and even the massive amounts of dust that's vacuum-collected are reused.

"Our goal is to be a fully circular economy," Boyer said.

Conwed history

It's impossible to be of a certain age from Cloquet or connected to the mill in any way and not know its difficult history in the days before USG ownership in 1985.

As Conwed, the plant was similarly situated as a mainstay for employment in the community. But it used asbestos in its products, including ceiling tiles. No longer used in manufacturing, asbestos first gained popularity for its heat-absorbing properties. It was only later discovered to be cancer-causing, sometimes resulting in a form of cancer that shows up in the lungs decades after exposure.

Some people who worked at Conwed would later die from such exposure. In 1993, the Minnesota Department of Health published a study that said approximately 30 percent of former Conwed workers had suffered from lung abnormalities possibly caused by exposure to asbestos.

Leger confronted that dark passage in the plant's history.

"The fact that it has happened in the past, in this plant, it's a piece of who we are; it's a piece of why our safety culture means a lot to the people that work here," Leger said. "That history in Conwed helps remind people of those challenges. It's personal. They know people who worked in that environment and had gone through that. It's not a time in our plant's history we take lightly. It's something we're cognizant of and helps us make sure we have everybody on the same path from a safety standpoint moving forward."

Boyer noted that the plant's industrial hygiene testing aims to hit particulate marks that are half of the limit of standard tolerances. And, Leger added that after previous fines in recent years for air quality violations related to plant emissions, the plant just redid its Title V permits with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

"We're in good standing," Leger said. "We've got a really good relationship with MPCA. They were here last week on a random audit and it went great."

Next 100 years

Every centennial celebration features a question related to the next 100 years. A big part of the answer came in 2019 when Knauf, of Germany, bought USG and its 47 plants in North America.

Knauf is one of the world's largest manufacturers of construction materials. When it bought USG, it absorbed it into the private, family-owned company, removing USG from being publicly traded on the stock market.

Both Leger and Boyer talked about how Knauf is unafraid of the cyclical nature of construction. When building projects inevitably take a downturn, Knauf seizes the opportunity to invest in capital improvements at their facilities, they said.

It allowed USG to emerge from the pandemic at full throttle, and it gives the leadership and workforce confidence in their future. A current initiative, dubbed "Home," has found the mill making the plant more people-friendly, by doing things such as updating break rooms and washroom facilities.

Instead of focusing on the next fiscal quarters, "the corporate office is asking questions like what's our 20-year, 30-year, 40-year plan," Boyer said.

Already the most productive ceiling tile manufacturer in the USG network, Knauf has informed Leger it wants the Cloquet mill to be the biggest ceiling tile manufacturer in all of North America.

"Knauf is really just investing in our growth and in our future," Leger said.

Of course, that future always includes its employees looking up everywhere they go.

At her brother's new office in Wyoming, Bakken noted the use of USG-made ceiling tiles. When Barrett took a recent trip to Beverly Hills, California, he visited a marketplace on ritzy Rodeo Drive, where he observed a dropped ceiling with tiles marked "CLQ."

"Our product, from Cloquet," Bakken said, "right there on Rodeo Drive."

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