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From Neenah mill to global company: Kimberly-Clark celebrates 150 years as 'integral part' of community

NEENAH, Wisc. (From news reports) - When Kimberly-Clark was created in 1872, the U.S. had only 37 states. Neither of the World Wars had happened yet, and Henry Ford was still decades away from introducing the world to the Model T automobile.

Today, Kimberly-Clark is a nearly $20 billion company that employs roughly 45,000 people globally and produces the Kleenex, Cottonelle, Pull-Ups and other products that people find on their grocery store shelves.

On Tuesday, company leaders, community members and politicians gathered at Kimberly Clark's Experimental Mill in downtown Neenah to celebrate 150 years since the company first launched in Wisconsin.

"Neenah always has, and will be, our birthplace," Russ Torres, group president of Kimberly-Clark North America, told the crowd.

Neenah Mayor Jane Lang declared Oct. 22 as "Kimberly-Clark Day" to commemorate when the first sale took place in 1872 at the Experimental Mill, also known as the X-Mill.

Since then, Kimberly-Clark has become an "integral part" of the community for generations, according to Lang.

"Thankfully, that ongoing story continues today," she said.

As part of the celebration Tuesday, Kimberly-Clark announced a donation of $150,000 to the Neenah Joint School District to go toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Superintendent Mary Pfeiffer said there are also plans to talk with the district's board of education about naming a wing after Kimberly-Clark in the new high school that is being built.

Students from Neenah High School toured the X-Mill Tuesday and were able to talk with engineers who work there and ask them questions. At one point, Torres asked how many of the X-Mill employees in the room were Neenah graduates. The students turned in their chairs to see a cluster of raised hands.

Growing up in Neenah, Ryan Weiland watched as his dad worked at Kimberly-Clark for 38 years before retiring in 2009. But when he graduated with an engineering degree, Weiland thought that he wanted to make airplanes.

"I actually realized that making paper is harder, I think, than making an airplane," he said. Plus, working in the paper industry would allow him to work on a variety of topics and products, he said.

He -- and his sister -- followed in his father's footsteps and worked for Kimberly-Clark. Earlier this month, Weiland took on the role as the company's vice president of research and engineering for family care. He's looking forward, he said, to another "150 years, plus" for the company.

Kimberly-Clark grew from newsprint to household brands
Kimberly-Clark has evolved in ways that people living 150 years ago probably could not have predicted, said Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic and Development Corporation.

In 1872, John A. Kimberly, Havilah Babcock, Charles B. Clark, and Frank C. Shattuck came together to launch what was then known as Kimberly, Clark and Company.

The X-Mill, where Tuesday's anniversary celebration was held, is located on the site of the company's first plant, the Globe Mill.

Kimberly-Clark started by making all-rag newsprint, before adding more mills and machines over the decades, producing book, wrapping, specialty and writing paper. In 1889, the company bought land a few miles east of Appleton, and the town of Kimberly grew around the mill that was built there.

Throughout the 20th century, Kimberly-Clark continued to expand and develop new products, creating Kotex, Kleenex, Huggies, Depend and Pull-Ups, among others.

Along with the growth and development came change and closures. In the 1980s, Kimberly-Clark moved its headquarters from Wisconsin to Texas. The next decade, the Badger-Globe Mill, where the company began, shut down.

In 2018, when it looked like Kimberly-Clark was going to close its Cold Spring plant, the state stepped in, giving the company $28 million in tax incentives in exchange for keeping at least 2,400 jobs and investing up to $200 million in its Wisconsin operations over the next five years. In 2019, a new warehouse and production lines were built at the Cold Spring plant.

Today, Kimberly-Clark employs more than 2,500 people and operates four manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin. The X-Mill is a research and engineering facility that works on family care products, such as Kleenex, Cottonelle, Viva and Scott. The Marinette site makes Scott, Viva and WypAll products. The Prototype and Experimental Facility, or KCPX, in Neenah works on personal care products and produces all of Kimberly-Clark's Huggies Nano and Micro preemie diapers. Finally, the Cold Spring facility makes Depend, Poise, U by Kotex and Goodnites.

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