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TAPPI YP Spotlight: John Edwards: Jessica Spadaccino

TAPPI YP Spotlight: John Edwards

Thursday, May 7, 2020
Author: Jessica Spadaccino

John Edwards is the current Operations Superintendent of Domtar’s NC5 Fluff Pulp machine in Plymouth, North Carolina. Learn how his problem-solving abilities, positive attitude, and Air Force 1s led him to be recognized as a rising star in our industry, and a 2020 TAPPI YP of the Year award winner.

What are your job responsibilities?

As a machine superintendent, I’m responsible for directing our incredible team of operators, shift supervisors, and process engineers in the safe manufacturing of a hygiene product that millions of people around the globe depend on.

How did you end up in this industry? 

When I was in high school, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to solve problems.  So that pretty much narrowed my choices down to engineering or political science.  Just kidding.  I had influential calculus and chemistry teachers that led me to enjoy both subjects.  When I added those two together, the only logical choice I came up with was chemical engineering.  I would later find out that chemical engineers actually only need to know enough about chemistry to know when to call a real chemist. 

Before I arrived at NC State University, I was recruited by the Paper Science Department which offered a scholarship if you pursued your BS in Paper Science & Engineering along with your BS in Chemical Engineering.  The bait of the scholarship was enough to take their offer, plus if you’ve ever met Dr. Med Byrd, then you know that he could sell ice to Eskimos.  That’s how I ended up in this industry, but what has kept me in this industry since day one of committing to the Paper Science Department at NCSU has been the family atmosphere that I found throughout college, throughout my work at Domtar, and throughout my committee involvement within TAPPI.  That is why I love the paper industry.

What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

In mid-2017 I was given the opportunity as a process engineer to manage the smaller fluff pulp machine (NC2) at the Plymouth Mill.  Aside from a short stint as a shift supervisor, that was my first real experience as a leader of a sizable team.  I was ecstatic.  This was a historic machine that was known on the world stage for its quality.  Normally, after being placed in a position like that, you would expect to acquire a solid foundation of machine experience, learn basic leadership skills, and develop your decision-making abilities.  Except it had also been announced that the machine would be permanently shutting down during the first quarter of 2018.  When you’re faced with the inevitable shutdown of a machine and all the problems that come with that (morale, uncertainty, staffing, cost management) you learn quite a bit more about leading through turbulent times.  My proudest accomplishment is not leading the closure of a machine, but what I learned in the process.  I learned that when the chips are down, your relationship with your team is what will bring you both through it.  I learned that everyone comes to work for a different reason, and it might not be the same reason that you come to work.  And most importantly, I learned that as a leader you have no greater responsibility than to ensure that your teammates make it home safely to their families each and every day.

What is it like being a young professional in this field?

It’s been my experience that if you are humble, you will have a positive experience as a young professional in this field.  The last thing a 58-year-old operator wants is a kid telling him how something should be done.  What he does want, however, is someone who will learn from him, listen to his frustrations, and then go fix his problems.  Humility builds trust, which is a must-have for strong relationships in the workplace.  Strong relationships will result in strong performance for the team as a whole.  That said, it helps that this field is mostly filled with family-oriented businesses and people.  The tightknit atmosphere of our industry presents a prime opportunity for young professionals to learn and flourish early on.

Do you have a mentor? If so, what’s a lesson they’ve taught you that you’d want to pass on to others?

Oh, absolutely I have a mentor.  His name is Todd Coltrain and I could not have been blessed with a better mentor or boss at this stage of my career.  I’ve got enough quips of wisdom from him to fill countless paragraphs, although some of them I’ll admit you’d probably have a hard time understanding since we’re both from Eastern North Carolina.  My favorite by far is “This too shall pass.”  There is nothing more calming to hear after I’ve let out a nice 5-10-minute rant/vent about something than “this too shall pass.”  It reminds me how fleeting time really is.  And he’s right.  All those times thus far have passed.  And all the hard times we will face in the future will pass, too.  And your hard times will eventually pass, as well.  Just be sure that you learn from them before they do.

What do you want to be when you “grow up?”

I place less emphasis on what I want to be when I grow up in favor of what I want to be doing when I grow up.  My goal in life is simply to have a positive impact on other people, whether it be mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.  When I grow up, I want to be able to positively impact the largest number of people that I can.  I was asked this by someone within Domtar not too long ago, and I responded that right now I can impact the people on our machine.  My boss can impact the people across our plant site.  Our mill manager can impact an entire community, and an executive can impact people in different time zones.  Where I’ll end up time will tell, but the goal remains the same.

What motivates you at work?

The people.  The drive to make us all better versions of ourselves.  Better managers, better engineers, better leaders, better operators. 

If you could give advice to other young professionals in our industry, what would it be?

Ask stupid questions.  Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.  It is becoming increasingly common that young professionals are being placed in leadership roles sooner rather than later due to the age gap within our industry.  What this means is that you could easily find yourself in situations where the decision is yours to make, but you know very little about how to make it.  As a young leader, you’ll have to be comfortable being the least knowledgeable person in the room occasionally.  When it happens, don’t fake it.  Ask questions, get answers, learn from it.  More than likely the people that put you in that leadership position didn’t do it based on your intricate knowledge and experience of the process, but because of your decision-making ability when presented with good information, coupled with a healthy dose of the leadership potential that they saw in you.

What’s your favorite thing(s) to do outside of work?

Spend time with my wife, Jessica and my one-year-old daughter, Everly and hang out with our friends from church. 

I also dabble in landscape photography (@johnt.edwardsphotography).

What’s one thing you would like to get out of being involved in TAPPI?

The satisfaction of contributing back to the industry that provides so much for me and my family.

Just for fun:

What’s your favorite food? 

Fried pork chops

If you could pick a theme song for your life, what would it be?

Air Force 1s by Nelly because I’ve had two pairs in my life.

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