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Wednesday, 07 October 2015 14:33

A passion for paper: Slusser’s spent her career in a male-dominated industry

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wib slusserMost people don’t kick off their retirement by becoming president of a company, but Nicki Slusser is not most people.

In an era when women rarely ventured into engineering fields, Slusser — now at the helm of Jackson Paper Manufacturing as president and chief operating officer — finished a degree in mechanical engineering and, after graduating in 1979, went to work for the male-dominated paper industry. At the time, she was the only woman there who wasn’t in an office job. 

For some, walking into a company full of men as the only woman in the room would have been intimidating. But not to Slusser. 

“Not really,” said Slusser, shrugging her shoulders when posed the question. “I didn’t have any doubts that I could do it. I had something to prove, I think, when I first started, but that took about a month to prove to everybody.” 

It was the guys she worked with who had the questions — “can she do this, can she do that, can she get dirty, can she last all those long hours, all those things that you get tested with,” Slusser recalled — so she just had to show them the answer was “yes.” 

“I’m sure there’s all these glass ceilings and that kind of stuff out there, and did I run up hard against any of those? I can’t say that I did,” Slusser said. “I’m sure there was some prejudice out there, but I never felt like it really got in the way of my career.”

In some respects, she said, her gender may have helped. She entered the workforce around the time that industry was recognizing the dearth of women in the workplace. Some companies were actively recruiting women to take on leadership roles. At the very least, being a woman made you a minority, so whatever you did — good or bad — people noticed. 

That’s not to say that discourse at the paper mill was always polite or delicate, but that’s the nature of the business. 

“Did you have to be kind of thick-skinned, especially working around a lot of men and construction workers? Of course you did,” she said. “You had to dish it out just like you had to take it, but I don’t know that’s all that different than anything else. I feel pretty fortunate in that I was in an industry that was willing to accept women into it and was willing to look for opportunities to give you a chance.”

Slusser quickly moved from engineering to operations, rising through the ranks to work for International Paper, Champion and Mead in a variety of management roles, including managing the International Paper Mill in Cantonment, Florida. She became the first woman to serve as president of the Paper Industry Management Association, and she also joined the board of directors for the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry. 

In many ways, her career mirrored that of her father Jim Stewart, who was also in the paper business. Like Slusser, her dad started out as an engineer and moved up in the operations side of things, eventually managing multiple paper mills in the course of his career. Slusser’s childhood was defined by the paper business, with the family moving from paper mill town to paper mill town as she grew up. 

“He was a huge mentor for me,” she said of her father. 

As a college student, Slusser found herself a shoe-in for co-ops and internships at paper mills. She wasn’t really planning on following in her father’s footsteps to make it a career. It just kind of happened. 

“I liked the people, liked what was going on, liked the excitement,” she said. “So when I got out of school I was like, ‘This is a pretty good industry and I actually know something about it.’” 

But success didn’t come for free. 

“It required a lot of time. A lot of weekends, nights and part of that’s because it’s a 24/7 operation, so when there’s problems going on or issues, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I was planning on playing golf today,’” she said. “You drop what you’re doing and address whatever the issues are.”

Slusser’s career eventually took her to Memphis, where she held high-level positions in the corporate offices of International Paper. She was there for eight years, but as she entered her late 50s, she started to get burned out. The job involved a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of traveling, a lot of stress. Her husband was having health problems, and she wanted to be there for him. 

She decided to retire. The Slussers had purchased a house near Lake Logan in Haywood County, intending to spend at least part of the year there during her retirement. 

She’d barely announced her decision when the phone rang. It was Tim Campbell, CEO and majority stockholder of Jackson Paper, wanting to know if Slusser might want to hang in the business for a little longer. 

Campbell was a longtime family friend and had started the business in 1955 with Jeff Murphy, who became Slusser’s brother-in-law. Around the time Slusser moved to Western North Carolina, Murphy sold his shares and headed for Florida. 

“It started out as doing some consulting work,” Slusser said of her talks with Campbell. “I wasn’t going to be working all the time.”

The job soon became more than that, with Slusser taking over operations responsibilities in January 2013. She and Cambell worked it out so she could do the job while still enjoying the vacations she’d planned for her retirement — though, as is necessary with a 24/7 business, she’s always reachable by phone. 

Slusser’s grateful for the opportunity. It was high time to step back from the hectic pace of corporate America, but quitting the business cold turkey wasn’t quite what she wanted. 

“When this came along, it was just a perfect fit for me wanting to retire but still keep my fingers in the business,” she said. 

The comparatively small, family-owned paper company is a more flexible, less bureaucratic place to work. She can bring her dog to work. It’s a good fit. 

And it’s still a paper job. Because, for all the challenges and unexpected crises it brings, Slusser loves the paper business — its ever-changing dynamics, the good people it attracts, the security it provides to families and towns — and she wants to be a part of that world for a good while longer. 

“I didn’t really necessarily want to retire 100 percent,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do with my time. I don’t think I could play golf five days a week.”