Some may continue to think of Domtar as a paper company, but CEO John D. Williams makes it clear that when he thinks about the far horizon — for his company and the paper industry — he thinks about advanced biomaterials and the kind of work pursued at the Renewable Bioproducts Institute.
“I’m talking, of course, about the vision of unlocking and recombining the chemical building blocks of trees in new and interesting ways to make advanced, sustainable biomaterials” he said.
There is a new sense of excitement and optimism, and the difference, he added, is a change in perspective. “RBI is now looking at the horizon from the bow of our ship instead of the stern. The perspective is changing from ‘When does it end?’ to ‘Where will it lead?’ This matters enormously … Playing to win is a very different game than playing not to lose.”
Williams made his remarks during RBI's annual executive conference, March 7-8, on Georgia Tech's campus. Growing Resources Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow: People, Technologies & Ideas highlighted both faculty and student research. The event provided two days of dialogue to further explore collaborative partnerships between industry and RBI and how, together, they can tackle some of the biggest challenges and opportunities of the next decade and beyond.
He leads a company on the forefront of the effort to convert sustainable wood fiber into useful products. Speaking to an audience comprised of pulp and paper industry representatives, Georgia tech faculty and students, and affiliates, Williams sought to draw a bigger picture.
"Wood fiber is the age-old wonder material that is seemingly new again," he said. "Its inherent attributes—renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral, and cost-competitive—are driving exciting new developments. Today, we are the biomaterials prospectors of our forests, surrounded by opportunities to explore and develop.
“We are not here to address our industry’s ‘existential challenge’, he continued. “We are here so that our industry can develop sustainable solutions to some of society’s grand challenges.”
Williams emphasized that, while his company’s roots are deeply planted in the paper industry, he and his team have taken steps – organizationally, financially, culturally – to position Domtar for growth. The company has become a supplier of choice in three markets with growing demand – specialty papers, pulp and personal care.
But it is the work in biomaterials that Williams said presents a new vision for the industry in four distinct ways:
- Leveraging existing wood-fiber suppliers and the sustainable forests they support
- Focusing on some of the country’s greatest minds on solving big, important problems
- Re-purposing existing assets to preserve and create shareholder value, and
- Supporting vibrant communities with good jobs and good wages in North America
This new vision follows years and years of great and rewarding work, he said. “In conferences, we collaborated, discussed new efficiencies, process improvements, product enhancements to papermaking. But in recent history, every one of those conferences left us having the same corridor conversations: Demand for white paper had declined by another three to four percent. This reality casts a long shadow.”
And that’s where the change in perspective comes in. Neither the opportunities nor the grand challenges are limited to the paper industry; they are global, and many of these challenges may be solved with advanced, renewable, wood-based chemistry.
Domtar is well into the development of novel biomaterials from wood fiber and is the world leader in commercial-scale lignin separation and purification. The company is also gaining experience in producing non-crystalline cellulose and is collaborating with Schlumberger, the world’s leading technology supplier to the oil and gas industry, to explore whether the nanocrystalline cellulose product Domtar produces can improve the yield of hydrocarbons from hydraulic fracturing.
“While many are exploring how to more efficiently produce bio-based fuels, this work seeks to improve the efficiency of conventional fuel development – which also has the potential to deliver important economic and environmental benefits,” he said.
Williams outlined his company’s view for the future in technology and research, and he emphasized that science alone cannot keep a company relevant and successful during the evolution of the industry and rapidly expanding bioeconomy. While the times may bring uncertainty, this is nothing the industry hasn’t seen before.
“We must remember innovation is not new to us but, when you are confronted with the stark choice – innovate or die – it can result in some palpable anxiety,” he said. “You (the paper industry) must remember where you have already been, what you have already accomplished. We have a rich history of innovation. Relax and be confident.
“We also must not let pride or over-confidence, or fear of failure result in self-imposed restrictions to stay one course when there are so many paths calling. When necessary, we should celebrate having the confidence and courage to change course and redeploy our resources.”
Domtar, he said, has steered itself purposely into a period of transition. This has made it especially important to be mindful of the opportunity-cost tradeoffs that arise. The task for Domtar – and for any company – is to get the balance right between short-term, medium-term and long-term objectives.
“And herein lies the challenge. Even in organizations that understand they must change in order to survive, the default approach is too often one of incrementalism. That’s where your leadership comes in, to be the people who push the organization to move down that list of options further and faster than it naturally would on its own.
“As you plan your budgets, resist the temptation to spread your resources evenly across different planning horizons. Go long. Go very long.”