Austin E. Cofrin was born in Bradford, New Hampshire in 1883. He had only a grade school education. His father died when he was 13, and he had to help his mother on the farm in New Hampshire. At age 16, he got his first job in a paper mill, where he worked as a coating machine helper. He worked in numerous other paper mills in New England until he moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1911, where he worked as a supervisor at Northern Paper Mill. In 1919, when he was 36, Mr. Cofrin, along with a few dozen employees, founded a small paper company on the west shore of the Fox River.His fierce independence, rugged individualism, resourcefulness, leadership, and drive set the character of a company — Fort Howard Corporation — that has prospered and grown to be one of the largest tissue products paper companies in the world.
Mr. Cofrin’s resourcefulness was a great advantage in the early days of the company. He started a machine shop to service the mill equipment and later to build converting machines needed to convert the operation’s steadily increasing production. Equipment was so well maintained that the company’s first two paper machines from the 1920s have long since been sold but are still producing paper overseas. Some converting equipment from the early days is still in operation at the Green Bay mill.
Technically innovative, Mr. Cofrin spent many hours personally involved in reconfiguring paper machine production to increase speed and efficiency. Many of his ideas became standard for future generations of paper machines. Always conservative in his capital expenditures, Mr. Cofrin spent a considerable amount of time attending machinery auctions and sales, rather than paying full price for new equipment. Nevertheless, Fort Howard operations were enormously efficient. That legacy continues today. Of the eleven largest tissue paper machines in the world, Fort Howard owns and operates nine of them.
In the mid-1930s, Mr. Cofrin became convinced that the company could produce a high-quality product by mixing recycled pulp with virgin pulp and groundwood. The company’s research and development department worked for months on the process. The first rail car of wastepaper was purchased for recycling by Fort Howard in 1936 or 1937.
Mr. Cofrin’s vision for wastepaper recycling preceded that of general society by approximately 50 years. In the years since the first carload of wastepaper reached Fort Howard, the company’s recycling technology has continued to evolve. Today, its deinking technology is considered among the most sophisticated in the world. Fort Howard’s recycling expertise allows it to recycle 50 different grades of wastepaper, including grades others find difficult to process. With the company’s near-total commitment to wastepaper fiber for its operations, it consumes approximately 1.4 million tons each year, an amount that would fill a 100-acre landfill to a depth of 18 feet.
Mr. Cofrin’s pragmatic vision for wastepaper recycling almost six decades ago was duly recognized in 1991 when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized Fort Howard with its first corporate award for national recycling leadership.
The classic self-made man, Mr. Cofrin built an organization that today is a model for others. Fort Howard was and is lean, focused, and devoted to a core business. Its efficiencies are legendary. The personal qualities that Mr. Cofrin instilled in his organization in its early decades are still evident in the company today: independence, self-sufficiency, pragmatism, commitment to employees, and just plain hard work.
Mr. Cofrin, known affectionately as A.E. by his employees and business associates, served as president of the company until 1960, when he passed the mantle of leadership to his son, John. Throughout his career, he was an unpretentious, hands-on manager, not afraid to dirty his hands and work directly with mill personnel to deal with problems. His commitment to his company was total, and it was not uncommon for him to sleep on a cot in the basement of the mill to be near the action.
Mr. Cofrin died in 1980 at age 96. In 1995, Fort Howard employees and families celebrated the company’s 75th anniversary with special entertainment at the Weidner Performing Arts Center in Green Bay. It was coincidental but altogether fitting that the show was held in the Cofrin Family Center, which was built with contributions from the Cofrin family and is a legacy to the mark that Mr. Cofrin left on the community and his company.
Fort Howard and James River merged in 1997 to form a new company, Fort James.