Paper chase

The COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on paper and dispenser supply chains like never before, but innovative Australian suppliers have responded on the back of smart strategies and great people.

Panic buying of toilet paper will be one of the enduring memories of COVID-19 – suddenly the everyday item became sexy, or at least appreciated.

Behind the scenes of the supermarket and media circus, however, a serious side played out as paper distributors such as Solaris Paper and sister company, The Sorbent Paper Company, sought to fast-track the restocking of supermarket shelves and businesses alike.

Part of a triumvirate of companies that includes The Sorbent Paper Company and Cottonsoft, Solaris Paper is an Australian-operated and managed company that distributes high-quality toilet and tissue products.

Acting CEO, Steve Nicholson says during the pandemic the company has benefited from being part of a vertically integrated supply chain that draws from certified and sustainable plantation trees that can be turned into finished goods, rather than having to buy pulp on the open market.

“This protected our supply over this period,” Nicholson says.

At the core of Solaris Paper and The Sorbent Paper Company supply chain response are state-of-the art manufacturing facilities both in Australia – Pemulwuy in western Sydney and in Box Hill in Melbourne and throughout Asia.

They have helped keep stocks of toilet paper rolling, as has an alliance with supply partner Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), a family-owned Indonesian business which is one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies.

“APP’s vertical integration and technology strengths are invaluable in allowing our Australian and New Zealand companies to move ahead of the curve in new production innovation,” Nicholson says.

“It has a strong commitment to sustainable supply from its vast plantations, where ‘zero deforestation’ is practised in the supply of virgin fibre for converting into the many tissue-finished goods that Solaris supplies to business-to-business channels and which Sorbent supplies to the retail markets of Australia, while Cottonsoft concentrates on the New Zealand market.”

The other winning factor for Solaris Paper during COVID-19 has been a great cohort of workers who put in long hours to maintain distribution channels. “Our team certainly works hard and we want to recognise their contribution to keeping Australia in toilet paper!” Nicholson adds.

Dispenser solutions evolve

In addition to tissue products such as toilet paper and commercial wipes, the pandemic has put the focus on dispenser systems for Australian commercial and private facilities in response to the need for ever-higher hygiene standards around paper and hand-hygiene products.

Although there was an instinctive response within many healthcare and commercial facilities to switch to touch-free, automated dispensers of hand-hygiene products when COVID-19 first broke out, the market has since adapted according to specific needs.

In releasing its Verla range of hand and body solutions, True Blue Chemicals has offered two easy-to-use dispensers that are cost-efficient and which require minimal maintenance. They were developed in partnership with a leading Dutch engineering company that makes dispensers.

True Blue Managing Director Brad Macdougall says some of the innovation around dispensing in the hand-hygiene space has led to systems that are too expensive to buy and maintain for some users.

“Our system in simplistic in its nature, which means we have an effective solution that’s cost-effective and reliable,” he says.

“There are some amazing dispensing systems on the market, but we just felt there was a gap in the mid-tier space, so we brought to market a proprietary and cost-effective dispensing system that is simple to use and which is ideal for our comprehensive range of Australian products.”

While True Blue has not ruled out releasing its own automated dispensers, Macdougall says for now the priority is on “keeping things straightforward”.

“Many customers and distributors that have onboarded that technology have experienced massive problems around reliability and breakdowns, so we’ve consciously chosen not to go down that path.”

The Verla range of liquid, foam, gel and lotion products is designed for use in aged care, education, childcare, health and fitness, commercial property and hospitality facilities. Although a global shortage of thickening agents has proven a challenge, Macdougall says the market has responded positively to the products.

“The long-term outlook for that range is very positive and we’ve sold it across markets from healthcare and hospitality to fitness ad leisure, education and commercial buildings. It really does cater to a broad range of business.”

For its part, Solaris Paper has focused strongly on providing sophisticated paper-dispensing systems that lower overall product consumption, reduce waste and lower the number of product changeouts. While some of its competitors have moved to proprietary dispensers, Solaris Paper has designed its dispensers to fit the majority of products in the market.

“We believe that flexibility is appreciated by our customers,” Nicholson says.

Sustainability has also been on the agenda, with Solaris Paper having long been committed to the responsible sourcing of products and environmentally sound operations. “Sustainability is important for everyone’s future,” Nicholson says.

“Maintaining the disciplines we put in place for sustainable and responsible supply today ensures that we can continue to provide our customers with highly sustainable products to our customers well into the future.”

He adds that customers, too, are always looking for sustainable, economical solutions. Solaris Paper has sourced TAD (Through Air Drying) towel from the Sorbent Paper Company, which supplies the market-leading Handee supermarket kitchen towel.

“The interlock weave of this technology creates a superior absorbency and strength that reduces the amount of towels needed for dry hands, therefore saving cost and the environment,” Nicholson says.

Demand and supply pressures

Despite inevitable challenges as a result of the pandemic, Solaris Paper has fared well during the past 12 months courtesy of its unwavering support for customers and a commitment to the reliable supply of paper and dispensing products.

Nicholson says the business has had to deal with three key phases – first, the unprecedented demand for toilet paper and other washroom paper products; second, the dramatic rise in the use of hand sanitisers and paper hand towels as healthcare facilities, in particular, moved to frequent hand washing; and, third, well-documented global shipping constraints that have affected all industries from motor vehicles to furniture and paper

As the use of sanitisers and hand soaps increased, Nicholson says it felt as though every local manufacturer – from gin distillers to chemical companies – began producing sanitisers. “So there is now an oversupply in the market.”

Hygiene in washrooms, in particular, has been a critical issue in the past year, with Solaris Paper’s customers and other cleaning businesses needing to be agile to rise to the occasion.

“We’ve all had to learn together how to prevent a pandemic spreading,” Nicholson says.

“There was plenty of education provided by our health departments and the World Health Organisation. Hats off to them for flexing as they did.”

At True Blue, Macdougall says demand across various product ranges has been “erratic”, especially given that his business covers the gamut from the booming healthcare sector to the embattled hospitality sector.

“It’s certainly been up and down. Many industries are experiencing strong trade across different market sectors, but there are still a lot of businesses that are doing it tough and we are certainly not immune to that.”

Macdougall says after a period of panic buying for disinfectants and hand-hygiene products, demand has started to taper off a little.

With an eye to long-term success, he says True Blue has been conscious of maintaining strong relationships with existing partners, rather than just pursuing new clients in the hope of making quick profits.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, we were being inundated with enquiries and price didn’t seem to be an issue. But we made a decision early on to make sure we looked after our top-tier clients. There has been a lot of praise from our long-term distributor partners that we made that decision.”

Positive market outlook

As the pandemic unfolds, True Blue believes its status as a privately owned, Australia-made supplier of chemical and hand-hygiene products will stand it in good stead.

“We’re in a good position and we want to continue our focus on amazing partnerships, best-in-class products and incredible performance, which has always been at the forefront of our focus,” Macdougall says.

He anticipates strong demand for True Blue products.

“We have most of the major cities covered and we see lots of opportunities in the regions as well and we’re excited about that.”

In addition to product innovation, Macdougall says True Blue will also concentrate on education and training packages for businesses in the cleaning and healthcare spaces, especially in relation to the use of chemicals.

“Since COVID-19 there has been an increasing appetite for customers and businesses to ensure that their people are using products in the most effective manner.”

Nicholson has no doubt that the future will be strong for Solaris Paper, with the leadership arriving later this month. The Livi brand remains the “rock and heart” of Solaris Paper and its distribution of wholesale tissue and hygiene products, including toilet paper, paper hand towel, facial tissues, commercial wipes and dispenser systems for Australian commercial and private facilities.

“Livi is well-known around the world and is versatile, with a wide repertoire that meets the needs of all verticals, providing the right balance of cost-effectiveness and quality,” he says.

The launch this year of Sorbent Professional – a premium range of products such as toilet paper, facial tissues and hand towels for the businesses to business market– adds another powerful arm to the business.

“We felt that there was a need in the market to bring the comfort of home into this space – soft, strong and absorbent product,” Nicholson says. “We have reviewed the market leaders and bettered them. Touch and feel them for yourself!”

This article first appeared in the July/August issue of INCLEAN magazine

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