Cascades Tissue in Barnwell – Engaging the Workforce

Cascades Tissue Group is renowned for being environmentally responsible. This Canadian-based company was one of the first companies to begin recycling waste as they realized “our waste can become our wealth.” They also have a long-standing culture for employee engagement. They recognize employee contributions as a key to their success. Their founding family members built the company on the framework of two basic values that resound today: respect for people and respect for the environment.

In 2019, Cascades chose Barnwell, South Carolina as a location for expansion with the purchase of an existing tissue manufacturing business. Part of their strategic growth strategy was to invest in the facility and Barnwell community while infusing the Cascades culture into the workforce. Covid and the post-pandemic workforce shortage greatly complicated their implementation plan but did not stop them from focusing on their plan.

The Barnwell site weathered these complications and is on a promising trajectory. In addition to investing millions of dollars in their equipment and processes, they recruited and filled nearly all open positions. Their workforce is now fully staffed at 150 employees. The leadership team put steps in place to train both new and existing employees while building trust in leadership to improve the retention rate.

On March 9, 2023, Cascades Tissue hosted the OpExChange for a plant visit. Representatives from twenty-two manufacturing companies from across the state joined the three-hour tour to learn not only how tissue is manufactured but also to discover the steps Cascades is taking to improve employee engagement. The site plant manager, Brian Solheim, orchestrated the interactive visit.

The Tissue-Making Machine
Brian narrated an hour-long tour through the entire tissue making process. It all begins with the creation of a pulp/fiber concoction. Two primary raw materials feed this process – virgin pulp and recycled fiber material. Customers of Cascades require various levels of recycled composition for their tissue. The Barnwell plant is capable of producing anywhere from zero to 100% recycled blends. Currently, 83% of their products are manufactured from recycled material.

The virgin pulp material is created and delivered from paper mills. The recycled fiber material is sourced from local distributors and consists of various combinations of paper, food containers, paper plates, and office waste. The beginning of the process creates a pulp paste from the fiber in huge vats. Brian compared the paste creation to that of a huge margarita mix. Ten thousand gallons of water are mixed in with the fiber blend and mixed for about thirty minutes. The solution goes through a series of dilution steps before being fed to the Valmet QRT® paper machine. At that point, the solution is approximately 99.8% water.

The paper machine is enormous, taking several minutes to walk from one end of the machine to the other. Brian explained that the heart of the machine and tissue making process is the “Yankee Dryer.”  This huge, cast-iron cylinder is basically an 18-foot diameter pressure vessel. The tissue arrives at the Yankee Dryer with approximately 45% dryness and exits at about 89%. Tissue is produced at a speed of approximately 60 miles per hour. The manufacturing cycle time of one of the large, two-to-three-ton rolls of tissue is about 40 minutes.

Converting Operations
The internal customer of the paper machine is the converting operation. The converting portion of the plant receives the large rolls of tissue from the paper machine and transforms them into neatly packaged rolls of toilet paper or napkins.

Two highly automated conversion lines produce rolls of tissue in parallel. One productivity advantage of this machine is the auto-splicing feature. As one of the rolls of tissue reaches its end another is auto spliced, eliminating downtime for roll changeover. A second favorable element of this line is the automated overhead lifting device incorporated into the machine. Not only is this an excellent safety feature, but it also reduces the need for an overhead crane system and associated factory ceiling height.

Additional automation on this line includes a sophisticated, self-sharpening saw that cuts through four rolls of paper “like a hot knife through butter,” a rapid core insertion station, and Fanuc robots for palletizing.

Daily Management System
In the center of the production area is the reporting area for the production team. Brian stated that this area is hugely beneficial in getting the team to visualize their progress and identify which areas need focus. An important implementation made recently was their hourly production board. This white board not only provides visibility and accountability but it also drives necessary actions for improvement. Brian emphasized that the manual action of the operator writing the hourly numbers of the board is an important element of the system. Although the data is electronically available, they want the operator recording the information manually to drive the ownership.

Culture Change
Brian led a discussion on how they are infusing the Cascades values into the Barnwell site. Although they are fully staffed with 150 employees now, 60% of those employees have less than one year’s seniority. None of the management team from the previous company are still with them. In essence, the workforce is totally new.

Brian stated that culture starts with leadership. He believes in principle-based leadership as opposed to rule-based.  He personally spends thirty to forty-five minutes with each new employee, emphasizing and discussing the core values at Cascades:

  • Naturally Respectful – Respect Is Earned, Humility Is in our DNA.
  • Stronger Together – We Are as Strong as We Are United.
  • Fierce Determination – Determined to Push the Limits.
  • Speak Truthfully – Open Minds, Open Doors.

In the conversation with the new hires, he provides tangible examples of behaviors. Brian starts with an example that resonates with them. He tells them, “I’m going to walk to your car right now and see if you take care of it … Guys, it is a choice. Do you have McDonald’s wrappers in the back, or is it clean?  When you walk through these doors and if your car is messy, I want you to make a different choice.”

Brian itemized several changes they made that have created a positive change in both their employee engagement and retention. Not surprisingly, much of these involve the real presence and availability of leaders and transparency to the workforce.

One example Brian provided was the workforce schedule. One of the biggest topics for concern was the shift schedule. To resolve this, they engaged the workforce in choosing their own schedule. The two areas of the plant have dramatically different environments and require distinct levels of attention. The paper machine runs twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It is a demanding job, with a non-defined break schedule. The employees of this area voted on changing to the “Dupont schedule,” which includes switching between two shift schedules and also includes seven consecutive days off, which provides a much-deserved break to come back refreshed.  The converting side of the plant chose to adopt the “Panama schedule” which allows them to work the same shift for nearly a month before switching to the alternate shift. Allowing the teams to select their own shift schedule was a big trust builder which also gave them more ownership in their roles.

Another example spoke to the leadership commitment to their employees. There was an incident where a payroll error led to a potential problem with employees receiving their paychecks on time. Brian explained how the HR manager handled this to provide transparency and trust. “She didn’t go to her office. She got on a teleconference in the lobby in front of the employees. She wanted them to hear the conversation she is having and how she is pushing the triggers. ‘I need checks, I need them FedExed, and here by Friday’. ” The employees witnessed how the leadership cared about them and were truly there to serve them. They had the checks by Friday.

A Culture of Change in Barnwell
The OpExChange visitors were impressed with what they saw in Barnwell, SC. The 419K square foot facility highlighted some state-of-the art processes and equipment. Automation and technology are being used to improve both efficiency and quality. Sustainability is a key focus to produce environmentally friendly products.

Brian and his team showed that his team is taking the fundamental steps to engage and develop the workforce. He acknowledged that this is a continuing process that takes time. Approximately 60% of his workforce has been with them for less than a year. The key to this is from the leadership team in infusing the Cascades values by living the values themselves through their behaviors and actions.

About Cascades
Founded in 1964, Cascades offers sustainable, innovative, and value-added solutions for packaging, hygiene and recovery needs. The company employs approximately 10,000 women and men who work in almost eighty facilities in North America.

Cascades Tissue Group is the industry leader in Canada and fourth-largest tissue paper manufacturer in North America. This division employes more than 2,000 people at its more than fifteen manufacturing and converting units in North America.More information is on the Cascades corporate website:

About OpExChange
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos ( More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website






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