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On a Roll


By Arlen Boardman
Post-Crescent business editor
Post Crescent July 14, 1996

NICHOLS - Nichols Paper Products Co. Inc. was in business 16 years before this village was incorporated in 1968, but it's only been in the last 13 years that it has really made it's mark.

That period, when Bernard Dahlin has owned and revved up the small paper converting company, saw Nichols Paper's sales grow sevenfold and its employment more than double.

Not bad for a guy who hadn't heard of Nichols Paper two or three years before he bought it and had no experience in the paper industry until he managed the plant for 15 months while considering the purchase.

As one customer said, Dahlin is the key to his firm doing business with Nichols Paper, the reason his company decided to send some converting business up to little Nichols just north of Black Creek.

Yes, Jeff Johnson of Wisconsin Tissue Mills said, Dahlin always finds a way to perform a converting task.

He's extremely cooperative; he's very service-oriented; he's very quality-minded, and we were just confident that we'd get a good product from him," Johnson said.

Dahlin built the sales on a mixture of specialized Nichols Paper products and, in recent years, a regular diet of converting jobs from papermakers like Wisconsin Tissue. And he built the profitability on his own salesmanship, an eye for higher productivity and recognition of worker contribution.

Dahlin knows who must share in the credit for growth that has seen six additions to the plant, $3.1 million spent on equipment and the nearly tripling of square footage to 83,000. He bought the business Dec. 1, 1982, and at the end of fiscal 1983, on Oct. 31, 1983, he had a profit, which he immediately shared with his 19 or so employees. Every employee got a bonus of 3% and an additional 3% toward a profit-sharing retirement program. The bonuses and benefits are bigger today.

"I feel I can't make a dime here without my employees," Dahlin said. "They work hard and produce; I make a profit and share."

"In a sense, I think it's good business." he said.

"The big thing is, I think it creates a better working atmosphere if the employees are happy," he said.

Adrell Zarnoth, who retired from Nichols Paper in 1991 but helped out until last fall, said they are happy. That first bonus surprised and pleased the workers and affirmed their decision was the right one to decertify their union before Dahlin bought their company from Straubel Paper of Green Bay.

Paper converters - mills that crepe, cut roll, glue or print to add value to paper - rarely locate in small communities, especially tiny and somewhat remote ones like Nichols with its 254 residents. But Straubel bought the old Jam and Jelly factory building there and operated it until it was approached by Dahlin.

Dahlin has called perhaps 40 or 50 converters in Wisconsin, which in sales lingo were "cold calls." He found their names in a directory and asked if they wanted to sell.

He said his accountant and attorney worked with him on the deal. "They both thought I was crazy when I wanted to buy the place, but they didn't tell me at the time," he said.

Dahlin was 41 at the time. He had sold his trusses and lumber business because it wasn't very profitable, but he had a wife and four children, and he needed a job or a business. Today he admits he had more guts than good sense, but it worked out.

He didn't anticipate the success he has had, a sevenfold sales increase and a comparable profit increase, but he knew early on he could improve the operation. He immediately cut the Straubel administration staff by 60% and slowly increased productivity in the mill by convincing the workers that, among other things, they could run a machine with one person instead of two.

Dahlin won over the workforce. He worked shoulder to shoulder with them and convinced them that they could be competitive and successful.

"We really, really pride ourselves in quality and service," he said. "I don't care what it takes in overtime or what, we really give our customer what they expect."

Dahlin had a tougher sell job outside of the plant. "Most people had never heard of Nichols Paper; they were very apprehensive at first" about entrusting Nichols Paper with converting work that would reflect on them, he said.

Dahlin persisted, as the lone salesman and marketing man and public relations guy. He called and called again and promised and convinced.

Johnson said Dahlin built a reputation with Wisconsin Tissue. He will find a way or find the equipment to make a job go.

He found the equipment to produce the giant toilet tissue roll used at some commercial sites, and Wisconsin Tissue's sales grew so much it ended up putting in its own jumbo-roll machine.

Dahlin said Nichols Paper today has a 50/50 mix of its own products and converting work for other paper companies. It's own products are in niches, such as a paper protective wrap for tin-plated steel coils that are later converted to cans and creped and labeled wrap for light poles in shipment.

Dahlin has wisely built on the low-competition niche approach that Strabel had taken. "I didn't realize how valuable that was when I bought the company, how many niches the company had," he said.

At the same time, Dahlin said it's getting tougher to do business. Competition is keener and margins tend to be smaller, and customer demands add to his challenge to be profitable.

For example, he has had to weather the high cost and create a large paper inventory, about 1,200 tons in his warehouse, so he can give quick service to customer who themselves adhere to the low-inventory, just-in-time concept.

But Dahlin's confidence in Nichols Paper has only grown. A couple of moves reflect that.

Two years ago he bought the assets and customer list of a Dixon. Ill., company, which got him into another niche, paper floral sleeves. He learned the company was selling that part of it's business from an ad in the Wall Street Journal.

He still spends most of his 60 hour, six-day workweek at Nichols and will continue to. He has in recent years eased his responsibilities there by hiring Paul Krueger as production manager and his son, Chip, as production supervisor.

Dahlin still handles all sales, plus purchasing and other administrative functions. And he still likes to hear a customer say, "Can you do this?"