Champion International Corporation History

Address:
One Champion Plaza
Stamford, Connecticut 06921
U.S.A.

Telephone: (203) 358-7000
Fax: (203) 358-2975

Website:
Public Company
Incorporated: 1893 as Champion Coated Paper Company
Employees: 24,379
Sales: $5.88 billion (1996)
Stock Exchanges: New York
SICs: 2435 Hardwood Veneer & Plywood; 2436 Softwood Veneer & Plywood; 2621 Paper Mills; 2631 Paperboard Mills; 2656 Sanitary Food Containers, Except Folding; 2677 Envelopes; 2678 Stationery, Tablets & Related Products; 2679 Converted Paper & Paperboard Products, Not Elsewhere Classified

Company History:

Champion International Corporation is a leading U.S. maker of paper products, specializing in paper used for business correspondence, commercial printing, publications, and newspapers. Champion also manufactures pulp, beverage containers, plywood, lumber, and studs. The company, one of the largest private landowners in the United States, owns or controls more than 5 million acres of U.S. timberlands, and also owns or controls--through subsidiaries--significant timber acreage in Canada and Brazil.

Early Misfortunes Led to Competitive Edge

Champion Coated Paper Company was founded in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1893 by a retired greeting-card and valentine printer, Peter Thomson. Thomson was an energetic businessman, keenly competitive and ambitious. His aggressive quick thinking turned some of his company's early misfortunes into successes. In December 1901, the paper mill at Hamilton was destroyed by fire. In 1913, a flood of the great Miami River followed by fire again destroyed the Champion mill. Both times new mills were built and new machinery installed. These natural catastrophes turned out well for Champion, as the new equipment gave the company a considerable edge over competitors who were using older, less productive equipment.

Through much of its history, the company was owned and managed principally by members of the Thomson family. In 1906 Peter Thomson's son-in-law, Reuben B. Robertson, Sr., founded the Champion Fibre Company in Canton, North Carolina. Robertson's company provided the Hamilton mills with a supply of wood pulp, the raw material from which paper is made. Family members thus were in control of both ends of Champion paper production. The two companies were nominally separate entities until 1935, when they merged to form the Champion Paper and Fibre Company. Peter Thomson's two sons, Alexander and Logan, joined the family business, as did Reuben Robertson and Peter Thomson's other son-in-law, Walter D. Randall. Peter Thomson instituted the rule of primogeniture for his corporation, stipulating that only one son from each of these four families, preferably the eldest son, would be allowed to enter the business. In 1932, nearly 73 percent of Champion's stock was owned by members of the Thomson family. In 1960 that figure was still close to 42 percent.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Champion made its reputation by always offering the lowest prices in the industry for its coated papers, papers with smooth surfaces that can be imprinted. Champion was able to offer a consistently low-priced product for several reasons. Champion's stockholders were principally family members, so there was no need to offer high dividends to please Wall Street. Profits were quickly reinvested into new and better mill equipment. Champion avoided the notoriously volatile newsprint industry. It instead made magazine and book paper, paper for cigarette packages and gum wrappers, coffee bags and tobacco pouches, postcards, and pickle labels. Because of the size of Champion mills' booming production, they were among the hardest hit in the industry in the 1921 recession that followed World War I. Champion recovered quickly, however, and continued to churn out a high volume of coated paper into the next decade.

Pioneered Use of Scientists in Papermaking in the 1920s

In 1926 Champion instituted a technical research division, a relatively new concept in the paper industry. The craft of papermaking is an ancient one, and few papermakers in the United States had scientific training in the field. In 1926, problems with the alum that was used to make the coating on the paper led Champion's president to hire a chemist from Du Pont. After only a week of research, this chemist, a veteran of the chemical warfare service in World War I, found a cheap additive to the alum that eliminated the problem. Champion's management was convinced of the financial gains possible by having research chemists as permanent staff. Within a few years, Champion had 40 chemists in its research laboratories. The investment in the laboratory paid off markedly. Champion's paper went up in quality and down in cost. It was also able to develop profitable byproducts from its mills, such as tanning extract, turpentine, and cleansing powder.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Champion continued to pull in a profit and to plow money into new equipment. Champion mill production ran well ahead of industry averages throughout the Depression years. The mills actually continued to expand their output, in spite of reduced markets for the industry as a whole. One factor that contributed to Champion's well-being in these competitive times was its forced sale of some of its North Carolina timberland in 1931 to the government, which used 90,000 Champion acres for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and paid $3 million for them. Between 1929 and 1932, Champion spent $4 million on new equipment or improvements to existing equipment. Champion opened a new mill in Houston, Texas, to capture profits from cheap southern pine.

The company forced pay cuts on its workers twice between 1929 and 1932, to keep down its expenses. Champion mills were not unionized at the time, but workers were said to have high company loyalty, and they had steady work six days a week. The Thomson family prided itself on its care of the Champion mill workers, who usually earned 15 percent higher pay than industry averages. Company policy was to not hire black workers or new immigrants, preferring second or third generation Americans of German or Anglo-Saxon descent.

The paper industry took a sharp upward turn with the entrance of the United States into World War II. Wartime demands for paper were high, and Champion continued to expand. After the war, the Champion Paper and Fiber Company was near the top of the industry in its coated white book paper sales. The company diversified its product line, to make bag paper, cardboard, and milk cartons. To prepare for more competitive conditions in the postwar economy, Champion began to buy timberland and paper-marketing outlets. Champion wanted control of its raw material--timber&mdash well as the distribution of its finished products. Champion had used this strategy, vertical integration, to some extent since 1906, by operating the pulp mill in Canton, North Carolina, to supply the Ohio paper mills. With its investments after the war, Champion was continuing an earlier successful policy. The company liquidated its subsidiary chemical company in 1947, and in 1951 sold another chemical laboratory. The company continued to invest in expensive machinery at its U.S. plants and opened a pulp plant in Brazil as well. Growth in the paper industry throughout the 1950s was slow. The decade ended in a recession. With Champion's high costs, profits were too low to keep the company healthy. By the end of fiscal year 1959, Champion's net income had fallen dramatically to less than $8 million, from a high two years earlier of more than $14 million.

Era of Thomson Family Control Ended in the 1960s

In March 1960 Champion's president, Reuben B. Robertson, Jr., died. He was the grandson of Champion's founder, Peter Thomson. His father, Reuben B. Robertson, Sr., resigned the chairmanship of Champion in the wake of his son's death. For the first time in the company's history, a person outside the Thomson family attained the office of president. With the company in serious financial trouble, the new president, Karl Bendetsen, took unprecedented measures. The former chairman, Reuben Robertson Sr. had operated the company in a paternalistic fashion. Bendetsen, on the other hand, realized that in many ways the family style of management had hurt the company. He fired 20 percent of Champion's employees within a year of taking office and extensively reorganized the corporation's management.

Champion had been producing more than 100 different grades of paper. Bendetsen dropped all but the top 20 bestsellers. Many executives took early retirement, and Bendetsen sold off the company's fleet of seven private jets. These cost-cutting measures were rapid and severe, and Bendetsen was not popular in the company's home base, Hamilton, Ohio. Bendetsen boasted in a Business Week report of June 26, 1961, two years later, that Champion was "no longer paternalistic in any sense of the word." The Thomson family gradually withdrew from Champion's board of directors. By 1967 the company's profits had gone up by 41 percent, and Forbes declared in its March 15, 1967 issue "one of the best managed companies in the entire paper industry."

In 1967 Champion merged with United States Plywood Corporation, a large lumber manufacturer. The merger was seen as equally beneficial for the companies. Both companies used timber, each to make different products. added its forest reserves in the western United States to Champion's large holdings in southern pine. The new combined company was expected to make more efficient use of its joint timber resources, to cut its costs substantially, in general, and to gain some protection from the volatility of business cycles in both industries.

At the time of the merger, the new company was given the name U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers, Inc. Karl Bendetsen and U.S. Plywood's president, Gene Brewer, were to share the running of the corporation. During the first year of the merger, however, the plywood division fared much worse than expected, and Bendetsen was elected chief executive officer, outranking Brewer. A year later, Brewer resigned. Within three years, most of U.S. Plywoods remaining executives had also left the company. In 1972 the company changed its name again, to Champion International Corporation. Although profits rose, the company was still not doing as well as anyone had hoped.

Management problems plagued Champion International in the 1970s. Karl Bendetsen reached the age of mandatory retirement in 1972. Passing over all of Champion's top executives, Bendetsen hired a man from outside the company to take over as chief executive. Bendetsen's successor, Thomas Willers, had been through a merger similar to the U.S. Plywood-Champion merger. He had been chief executive of Hooker Petroleum when it was bought by Occidental Petroleum. Bendetsen thought Willers would be able to pull Champion out of its postmerger stagnation.

Sigler Began Long Leadership Reign in 1974

Willers took Champion in a new direction by diversifying its products even further. The company bought into the home-furnishing and carpeting industries under Willers's leadership. Although Karl Bendetsen was officially in retirement, he was so alarmed by the tack Willers was taking that he used his influence with Champion's board to force Willers to resign. Willers was with the company less than two years. A former head of Champion's timber division, Andrew C. Sigler, was then named president and chief executive officer in December 1974. Under Sigler's management, the company focused more on its original product line. In 1977 Hoerner Waldorf Corporation, a paperboard and corrugated-box manufacturer, merged into Champion. This strengthened Champion's stance in the domestic paper market, but heavy reinvestments in new mills and equipment and a long slump in the building-products industry continued to keep Champion's profits down into the 1980s.

In 1984 Champion bought the St. Regis Corporation for $1.8 billion. It was an overnight deal that rescued St. Regis from a hostile takeover by Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch. St. Regis had been one of the largest U.S. producers of magazine paper and newsprint. The St. Regis acquisition doubled to 6.4 million acres the holdings of timberland owned or controlled by Champion, making it one of the largest private landowners in the United States. Afraid that Champion itself would be vulnerable to a takeover attempt after the St. Regis merger, Chairman Sigler instituted a sweeping debt reduction plan. He shut down seven wood-product plants in the western United States and sold off assets in Champion's packaging and building-supply divisions. In the next two years, Champion continued to narrow its product scope to mostly newsprint and white coated papers, selling off subsidiaries in brown paper packaging, envelopes, cardboard boxes, and wood products. In 1987 two mills in Texas were sold, while 1988 saw the divestment of a specialty paper plant in Columbus, Ohio.

An upswing in the economy helped Champion's net income rise after the St. Regis acquisition, but the paper industry slumped suddenly in 1989. Wall Street saw an end to the latest high cycle in the paper industry in 1989, and Champion stock continued to drop. Profits began to fall in 1990, reaching the nadir in 1993 of a $156 million net loss. As the company was weathering this latest cyclical industry downturn, it also invested heavily in capital improvements in order to be ready for the next upturn. Over an eight-year period ending in 1993, Champion poured $5.5 billion into adding capacity companywide as well as into environmental overhauls of some of its mills. While the additional capacity was expected to eventually improve company cash flow, Champion also took more immediate steps to generate cash by selling off a large portion of its U.S. timberlands. In 1991 and 1992 the company sold off its holdings in California and Oregon; the following year 867,000 acres in Montana were sold to Plum Creek Timber Co. for $260 million. These sales made additional strategic sense for Champion since none of the company's mills were located within easy reach of these holdings.

In a controversy dating back to the mid-1980s, a $5 billion class-action lawsuit was brought against Champion charging that the company had dumped pollutants--including dioxins--into the Pigeon River from its mill in Canton, North Carolina. Following a 1992 mistrial, Champion reached an out-of-court settlement in 1993 that called for the company to pay $6.5 million in compensation. Three years later, the company agreed to pay $5 million to settle a $500 million class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of waterfront property owners in Alabama and Florida who alleged that Champion's Pensacola, Florida, mill had polluted Perdido Bay with dioxins and other toxic substances.

Foreign Operations Became Increasingly Important in the 1990s

Paper prices swung sharply higher in 1994 and 1995 and Champion, just as planned, bounced back impressively, especially in 1995--the company's best year ever--when it posted net sales of $6.97 billion and net income of $772 million. In January 1996 timberland holdings near the company's Quinnesec, Michigan, mill were bolstered with the purchase of Lake Superior Land Company and its 288,000 acres of hardwood forest in Michigan and Wisconsin. In July of that same year, the company's Canadian subsidiary, Weldwood of Canada Limited, became a wholly owned Champion subsidiary. Weldwood, whose operations were centered in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, was a manufacturer of pulp, plywood, and lumber.

Champion did not fare as well in 1996 as it had in 1995, primarily because paper prices had once again fallen. Sales fell to $5.88 billion and net income to $141 million. Nevertheless, the company was able to point to its foreign operations as continuing bright spots. In addition to Weldwood, Champion also had a highly successful Brazilian subsidiary, Champion Papel e Celulose S.A. Between them, Weldwood and Champion Papel accounted for 85 percent of the company's consolidated pretax income and 91 percent of consolidated net income. In November 1996, Champion Papel's landholdings were bolstered with the purchase of 438,000 acres of land, 183,000 of which were in pine plantations. Also purchased with the land were a chip mill and an Amazon River port site from which Champion began exporting chips to Europe and Japan. Following this deal, Champion Papel owned or controlled nearly 1.4 million acres of Brazilian timberlands and savannah; the subsidiary also continued to operate a paper mill in southeastern Brazil which manufactured uncoated paper for export to almost 50 countries worldwide.

In October 1996 Sigler ended his 22 years of leadership when he retired. Richard E. Olsen, a 29-year Champion veteran, stepped into the roles of chairman and CEO. Although his company was still vulnerable to the cyclicality of the paper industry, Olsen could take at least some comfort in Champion's proven ability to be very profitable during upturns (shown in 1995) and in the very strong subsidiary operations in Canada and Brazil. Despite these strengths, Champion's stock continued to lag and rumors of possible mergers with Weyerhaeuser or Georgia-Pacific--fueled by a spate of paper industry mergers during the mid-1990s--periodically hit the press. Champion, itself the product of a series of mergers, thus faced a somewhat uncertain future as a new century approached.

Principal Subsidiaries: Champion Recycling Corporation; Weldwood of Canada Limited; Cariboo Pulp & Paper Company (Canada; 50%); Champion Papel e Celulose S.A. (Brazil).

Further Reading:

  • Bartlett, Richard A., Troubled Waters: Champion International and the Pigeon River Controversy, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1955.
  • Benoit, Ellen, "Champion Int'l: Squeeze Play?," Financial World, October 30, 1990, p. 19.
  • "Champion International: $5.5-Billion Expansion Prepares for the Future," Pulp & Paper, April 1994, pp. 32-33.
  • "Champion Paper," Fortune, January 1949.
  • "Competition Not Cartelization," Fortune, October 1932.
  • Gubernick, Lisa, "Scouting the Tall Timber," Forbes, December 17, 1984, p. 226.
  • McGough, Robert, "Champion International: Patience, Patience ...," Financial World, March 3, 1992, p. 16.
  • "The Merger That Wasn't Made in Heaven," Forbes, March 15, 1967.
  • Oliver, Suzanne, "The Day They Booed Andy Sigler," Forbes, May 11, 1992, pp. 46-48.
  • Sandler, Linda, "Champion International Swings into Action As Merger Pressure Rises in the Paper Industry," Wall Street Journal, May 12, 1997, p. C2.
  • Smith, Kenneth E., and Debra A. Adams, "With St. Regis Merger Complete, Champion to Be Top Producer," Pulp & Paper, November 1985, p. 113.
  • Vogel, Todd, "Tisch and Buffett May Help Champion Turn the Page," Business Week, October 22, 1990, p. 73.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 20. St. James Press, 1998.

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