Cottrell Paper Mill marks 85 years of thriving under founder's descendants

Section: Business,  Page: E1

Date: Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rock City Falls

Cottrell Paper Mill was founded in 1926 with $500 each from a Massachusetts man and his two sons. Frank Cottrell Sr., Frank Cottrell Jr. and James Cottrell set up shop in a vacant mill where George West was the first to make square-bottom paper bags and used straw to make paper when the Civil War cut off the supply of cotton.

Last year, the small mill on Kayaderosseras Creek quietly celebrated its 85th anniversary.

The mill is still family-owned and operated, and its leaders, a team of cousins and nephews descended from the founders, say the reputation they built and nurtured over the years for quality and customer service has kept the mill open while other paper mills in the area folded.

Cottrell employs 36 people who carry out the work the mill has done for generations -- turning cotton into paper that is used for insulation in electrical machinery.

But five years ago, as the shrinking market for this product caused months-long layoffs for its workers, Cottrell entered the transformer market. The new products do essentially the same things -- insulate wiring and prevent sharp edges from causing damage. But these papers are made from wood pulp and fit inside both pole-top transformers and power transformers. They now account for 45 percent of Cottrell's business, which amounts to between $5 million and $5.5 million in sales annually, said Ben Cottrell, vice president.

"We saw the market changing and put money back into equipment," he said.

Ben Cottrell, like his cousin, company president Jack Cottrell, and their fathers before them, started working at the mill as a teenager. The Cottrells worked during the summer doing grunt work -- painting and changing oil. As adults, they took on leadership positions.

"It's 24-7," Jack Cottrell said. "What keeps this niche mill going is knowing you don't work an 8-hour day and go home. There is always a call that keeps us here."

The Cottrells' customers, once local and national, are now spread around the world. Tom Harrington, the director of sales, just came back from a visit to Austria. Companies that make transformers, he said, don't deal with distributors, they want to do business with the manufacturer itself.

Raw materials, also once available domestically, now come from foreign markets. Cottrell's specialty papers must be pure, free of chemicals that would interfere with insulating capacity. The raw material used to make the paper must be pure cotton, now harder to find because designers tend to add Spandex and other ingredients to cloth. The company uses the scraps left over after garments are cut from the cloth. Bundles of brightly colored cotton and twill left over from making khakis and jeans sit in huge stacks in one corner of the mill. Pellets of compacted cotton left over from making sanitary napkins fill bins nearby.

Turning the cotton into paper -- shredding it, cleaning it, then shredding it some more, is a multi-step process that results in tubs of material the color of paste and the consistency of oatmeal before it is pressed, dried and turned into paper of many different widths and thicknesses, depending on the customer's order.

The sludge that is left over can be used for compost because it is free of chemicals, Ben Cottrell said, and it is recycled back into new products. Scraps left over from making products out of paper made from wood pulp are also recycled back into another batch of paper.

During a tour of the plant, Ben Cottrell pointed to the company's small hydroelectric dam, built in the 1980s, which contributes 25 percent of the mill's power when enough water is running through the Kayaderosseras. In the 1940s, manager Francis Harrington and his brother, Jim Cottrell, (Jack Cottrell's father) built the pipe that brings water to the power plant by welding together old railcars.

Ben Cottrell and his generation carried this approach forward. When the mill needed to replace the dryer section of the paper machine, they bought cast iron dryer cans from a shuttered mill in Maine and did all the installation work themselves. Cottrell said the system would have been a $2.5 million investment if purchased new; they did it in-house for between $350,000 and $400,000.

It's work like this that gives extra sting to a lawsuit filed by two cousins, Stephen and Richard Cottrell. The brothers inherited shares in the private business from the men's grandfather, James T. Cottrell Sr., in 1980. In 2007, the brothers sued the company and their relatives -- including an uncle, James T. Cottrell Jr. -- claiming shareholder abuse. They alleged in court papers the management team paid bonuses with profits from the company that should have been paid as dividends to shareholders. Ben Cottrell and lawyers for the company said Stephen and Richard Cottrell live in Florida and have never played a role in the business. The brothers contend they tried, but were rejected.

The case is still pending in state Supreme Court. The lawsuit clearly upsets the men who have spent their careers at the mill -- Ben and Jack Cottrell and their nephew, Tom Harrington, and the men still relatively new to it -- Jack's son, Josh, the qualtiy control manager and another nephew, Michael Darling, the production superintendent. But they said they focus their energy on what comes next each day and what will make their business more competitive. They have tried to convince National Grid to extend its natural gas line to the mill. It would cut energy costs, which now run to $60,000 a month.

Reach Leigh Hornbeck at 454-5352 or