On Dec. 10, 1939, the first sheet of pulp came off a machine at the Rayonier performance fibers plant in Fernandina Beach.
“Since that time, a lot has changed, both here in our plant and in Nassau County,” said C.A. McDonald, general manager of the plant, at an event Monday celebrating its 75th anniversary.
However, one thing that hasn’t changed is Rayonier’s impact on the community, where it employs more than 300 people, McDonald said.
The Fernandina Beach plant is the county’s second-largest industrial employer behind RockTenn Corp.’s plant, according to the Nassau County Economic Development Board.
“It has made us a stronger city, county and state,” said Florida Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, during the ceremony.
The plant is operated by Jacksonville-based Rayonier Advanced Materials Inc., the performance fibers company that was spun off from Rayonier Inc. five months ago.
Rayonier was a Washington state company in the 1930s when it saw an opportunity to expand with a plant in the Southeast, said Paul Boynton, CEO of Rayonier A.M.
“We had become the leading supplier of a fiber Dupont had developed called rayon,” said Boynton. The company’s name was a combination of Rayon and Mount Rainier.
As Rayonier developed a process to make rayon from cellulose polymers found in trees, it was looking for new sources.
“In the Southeast, and Northeast Florida in particular, we saw an abundant supply of fiber,” said Boynton.
The company decided to build a plant in Fernandina Beach. Construction began in 1937 and the plant opened two years later.
Rayonier A.M. produces specialty cellulose fibers in Fernandina Beach and at a larger facility in Jesup, Ga. It has long since abandoned the Pacific Northwest.
Boynton said he first learned about Rayonier’s performance fibers when he worked at 3M Corp., before joining Rayonier in 1999.
“Scotch tape is made and can be made with fibers from this facility,” he said. The fibers are actually used in a wide range of consumer products.
Bean, a Fernandina Beach native, said he once asked a previous Rayonier CEO for assurances the company would keep the plant operating and was told “we’ve made far too much of an investment to ever leave,” he said.
“It was good news then. It’s good news now,” Bean said.
Although Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island have more of a reputation as a resort community, Bean said industry is important to the area.
“Bottom line, we’re a working community. We’re just happy to have the best location in the state,” he said.
Rayonier split its businesses into two separate public companies as a way to increase shareholder value, but Rayonier A.M.’s stock has fallen from the mid $30s when the spinoff took effect to the low $20s recently. Disappointing earnings and oversupply issues in the cellulose specialties market, which may affect 2015 earnings, have hurt the stock.
Boynton said after Monday’s event he is not concerned about the short-term stock activity.
“We appreciate the fact that we have some short-term headwinds,” he said, but “we are very positive about the medium- and long-term prospects for this business.”
He said the company has been executing its plans as it intended to since the spinoff.
“The shareholder value will come,” he said.