Clearwater Paper (CLW)- A Play on Private Labels Elie Rosenberg is a value investor based out of Dallas, Texas. He is the founder and editor of Value Slant

Clearwater Paper (CLW) is a very intriguing paper and packaging stock that offers a way to capitalize on the still growing private label trend, as well as some company specific catalysts. Offsetting that attractiveness is exposure to commodity risk due to their fluctuating manufacturing input costs.


CLW operates in two business segments:

  • Consumer Products Division- manufactures tissue products such as toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissues for private label (store) brands. Their largest customers include Kroger and Safeway. Following the acquisition of competitor Cellu Tissue at the end of 2010 they are the largest retail private label tissue manufacturer in the US.
  • Pulp and Paperboard Division- manufactures solid bleached sulfate (SBS) paperboard, a type of premium paperboard used in high end packaging for a variety of graphic intensive applications. This division also processes paper pulp, which is used as the basic substrate for both segments of the company.

Tissue Segment

The growth side of their business is the tissue segment. The US tissue market has been a steady 2% grower for a number of years as it grows with the population and not GDP. And within that expanding market the private label share has been growing. For example, private label paper towel share has gone from 17.8% in 2002 to 31.8% since 2010. While the common perception may be that the surge in private label popularity stems from consumers trading down in a recession, this does not appear to be the case. The turn to private label has been strong since the early 2000s. It has more to do with the increased focus on quality and branding on the part of private label manufacturers and retailers than simply with a temporary trade down to a cheaper product. While consumers have benefited from brand level quality at lower prices, retailers have benefited from the much higher margins they enjoy on private label sales. There still appears to much room for private label penetration, with private label still only representing 28% of retail tissue sales in the US versus more than 60% in Europe.

Clearwater has a very strong competitive position within the private label niche. The large national retailers need a sophisticated partner who can provide brand-like quality and manage a large set of product offerings, and there is no other company focused on retail private label with the scale of CLW. Clearwater’s traditional base has been the west coast where they have 91% market share in the private label grocery tissue category. In December 2010 they bought competitor Cellu Tissue for $530 million, which doubled their tissue segment sales. The acquisition was somewhat expensive at 8.7X trailing EBITDA of $62 million, but it did make strategic sense and there are expected to be significant cost savings through synergies. The primary motivation for the deal was to establish a stronger foothold in the eastern US. Additionally, Cellu Tissue has a stronger presence in mass merchandisers and dollar stores, while CLW has focused on grocery stores. CLW hopes to introduce its higher end product lines into Cellu Tissue retail channels.

The second large growth initiative on the tissue side is the construction of a $270 million greenfield plant in Shelby, North Carolina, which is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of next year. This plant will house a state-of-the-art TAD (through-air-dried) paper machine that is used to manufacture ultra premium tissue grades (you know, the really fluffy ones) as well as seven converting lines. There is intense demand for the ultra premium grades from retailers as private labels continue to penetrate the higher end of the market. There is 350,000 tons of TAD capacity that is scheduled to come online in the next two years. But with the tissue market growing by 150,000 tons or more a year there does not appear to be a risk of overcapacity at this point.

The primary difficulty with the business is that CLW does not have any pricing power, as they can only price at a discount to the national brands. The brands have been reluctant to raise prices since 2008 despite rising input costs. The brands finally announced a price increase this summer, and CLW plans to implement a 2.5% price increase on its retail tissue (about 60% of its tissue business, the rest being “away from home” tissue for public venues and machine glazed paper).

Paperboard Segment

On the paperboard side the company’s strategy is to maximize their existing assets and lower costs. The US SBS paperboard market has witnessed consolidation over the past decade with the top 5 manufacturers now controlling 85% of capacity. Demand is more linked to the macro economy than on the tissue side, but still fairly steady (industry volumes did fall about 10% in 09 but rebounded in 10). Prices has moved up strongly since 2006 and rose through 08/09 as the industry players have been very rational in their capacity decisions.

Pulp Exposure

Prior to the Cellu Tissue acquisition, CLW needed to procure 85,000 tons of paper pulp externally per year. As Cellu Tissue was not vertically integrated that number has risen to 400,000 tons or 32% of CLW pulp requirements. Market pulp pricing is extremely volatile and sensitive to the global economy. Pulp pricing cratered in 2008 to mid 2009 then shot up through mid 2010. Pricing moderated slightly and then began another rally at the beginning of 2011, hitting record highs in June. Over the last few months pricing has initiated a sharp downward trend once again, with the benchmark NBSK grade down $100/ton off the summer highs. This volatility is difficult for CLW to manage as they cannot dictate pricing in either of their segments to respond to changes in pulp input costs, although they can hedge somewhat by selling more pulp externally if prices rise. However, falling pulp prices are a boon for CLW as neither tissue nor SBS pricing tend to fall with pulp.

Year to Date

The tissue segment has been a disappointment through three quarters of 2011 (the first three quarters since the Cellu Tissue acquisition). While pricing and volumes have come in as expected, margins have declined dramatically. Even backing out one-time Cellu Tissue integration and Shelby start up expense, the tissue segment has done only $75.3 million in EBITDA on $823.8 million in revenue versus $79.1 million in EBITDA on $427.2 million in revenue in 2010. Remarkably, there has been no incremental EBITDA from the Cellu Tissue acquisition. Part of the issue is that Cellu Tissue has lower margin business to begin with, both because they sell lower end products (the average selling price in the segment has gone from $2,621/ton to $2,066/ton) and because they have to buy market pulp. But the main culprit has been a rise in a variety of input costs including transportation, packaging, and chemicals, although notably pulp has been flat on an average basis YoY. The paperboard segment has been the unsung hero so far this year, putting up $96 million in EBITDA through 9 months due to an 8% increase in paperboard pricing vs. $57 million through 9 months in 2010.


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