Prairie Pulp & Paper gets foothold in U.S.

June 19, 2013
Author: Martin Cash

THEY call it Step Forward Paper and the Winnipeg company that developed it has made another such advancement today with the news its wheat-straw paper will be available at Staples stores and online in the U.S.

After about 15 years of research and development, the company run by Winnipeg environmental entrepreneur Jeff Golfman, is in what he refers to as "explosive growth" phase.

In anticipation of today's Staples U.S. launch, Prairie Pulp & Paper Inc. has shipped its 80 per cent wheat straw/20 per cent recycled wood fibre paper into 16 Staples warehouses across North America.

"We're very excited about this," Golfman said from an industrial bio-fibre conference in Montreal. "Staples is a massive force. To be aligned with them is such an amazing coup for us."

The low carbon-footprint paper has been available in Staples stores in Canada since August 2012 and has had good market response. The company expects volumes to increase 10-fold this year.

But Golfman and his partners, including former Manitoba finance minister Clayton Manness and Hollywood actor and activist Woody Harrelson, have a long way to go to achieve the ultimate goal for the company -- building its own paper mill in Manitoba.

(Step Forward Paper is currently made in two paper mills in the Punjab region of India using wheat straw from that agricultural area.)

The company has already burned through about $8 million in investments -- which has included significant support from the provincial government and federal funding agencies -- and on-going development continues to take place. The company has just completed a 100 per cent wheat straw test run.

The Manitoba mill would cost between $400 million and $500 million to build. Manness said financing such a large project is slow going and while breaking into the U.S. retail market is important, it does not guarantee anything.

"The market acceptability has to be proven in large measure," Manness said. "But I am delighted by where we are."

He admitted opening up the U.S. market is a scary proposition. "We have only been in the distribution business for less than a year," Manness said. "It's quite a sea change for us."

The partners have been engaged in their latest round of serious fundraising since last fall and Golfman said a fourth significant investor is weeks away from being finalized. "This is a high-profile U.S. businessman," he said.

The presence of Harrelson as part of the ownership group has opened doors for the small Manitoba company and along with Golfman's relentless efforts to keep moving it forward, there is a sense good progress is being made.

"Over the last couple of months I have done the tour of duty around Silicon Valley, Bay Street, Wall Street and Hollywood and all these folks want to finance and be part of building a mill in Manitoba," Golfman said. "But they all need to see revenues secured and customers intact. So that is what we are focused on now."

The association with Staples will help.

Jake Swenson, the director of sustainable products and services for Staples, said, "We offer thousands of eco-conscious products today. We believe Step Forward Paper has a unique, quality product and has done credible, independent assessments of the environmental benefits of their product."

The company is also on the verge of making serious headway into the business market.

"Revenues from the business-to-business sector have already surpassed our consumer purchasing even though it's just begun," Golfman said. "We expect it to represent 80 per cent of our business in the future."

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"We're very excited about this," Jeff Golfman said from an industrial bio-fibre conference in Montreal. "Staples is a massive force. To be aligned with them is such an amazing coup for us."