A few lines in business news last week marked the emergence of a new powerhouse in Canada’s forestry sector, as a company called Paper Excellence officially gobbled up Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products.
After 15 years of buying up Canadian pulp, paper and lumber mills, Paper Excellence is now the largest producer of paper pulp in the country, with about 20 per cent of all mill capacity — 50 per cent bigger than its closest rival, Canfor, according to data from pulp-market analysts TTOBMA.
But for such a major player, Paper Excellence is remarkably quiet about the inner workings of its business.
Who exactly runs the company? Who is Jackson Wijaya, the elusive founder and CEO? How did it come into the billions of dollars to fund its acquisitions, and what does it plan to do with nearly 22 million hectares of Canadian forest it now manages — an area four times the size of Nova Scotia?
The answers are hugely important for one of Canada’s most iconic natural resources, its immense tracts of forest.
For Paper Excellence, the story is straightforward.
“Jackson Wijaya established Paper Excellence … with a dream to build a strong business in the pulp and paper industry in the Americas and Europe,” the company said in a statement to CBC and five other media outlets last week. “His goal has been, and is, to create and develop a healthy and sustainable business.”
But a months-long investigation by CBC News, in collaboration with Canadian and international media partners as part of a wider look at the global forestry industry by 40 media outlets under the umbrella of the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has found that the reality and the rhetoric often don’t align.
The people behind or associated with Paper Excellence appear to have a pattern of using thickets of corporations, including in tax havens, effectively shielding transactions and assets from public and government scrutiny.
The company won’t open up about its past financing, some of which was facilitated by the China Development Bank, which is owned by the Chinese government.
CBC’s investigation also found leaked records and insider accounts that show that Paper Excellence, at least until a few years ago, appears to have been closely — and secretly — co-ordinating business and strategy decisions with Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the world’s biggest pulp-and-paper players, which has a track record of environmental destruction.
“It’s not normal for a company that has such a huge impact on such a vast area of forests, which goes to the heart of Canadian identity in so many ways … that a company with such impact wouldn’t have transparency,” said Shane Moffatt, head of the nature and food campaign with Greenpeace Canada.
Ask Greenpeace or any of a dozen environmental groups why they’re concerned about Paper Excellence, and they link it immediately to a conglomerate called Sinar Mas. Owned and run by a billionaire Indonesian family of Chinese origin — the Wijayas — the family has interests in palm oil, real estate, financial services and a controlling stake in Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).
Sinar Mas and its subsidiaries have been the target of environmental advocacy groups for years. There have been reports of tropical rainforest clearing, peatland destruction and “extensive ties” to companies linked to fires and deforestation in Indonesia.
In 2007, APP lost its sustainability certification from the Forest Stewardship Council “because of substantial, publicly available information that APP was involved in destructive forestry practices,” the FSC said. It has never regained it.
And that’s where it gets tricky. Paper Excellence’s official founder and CEO, Jackson Wijaya, is the grandson of the tycoon who created Sinar Mas in the 1960s. Over his life, Wijaya has held numerous positions with Sinar Mas, including as a director of an APP China holding company and of offshore corporations set up in the tax haven of Barbados.
In return, he’s benefited from his family’s wealth and financial connections.
The first Canadian mill acquired, in Meadow Lake, Sask., in 2007, operated under the Sinar Mas banner for several years; the mill’s website said it had been purchased by an Indonesia-based company. In 2008, Paper Excellence was incorporated in the Netherlands. The next year, it was still a fledgling company, yet it received a $17-million US loan at near-zero interest from family-owned Bank International Ningbo.
Now, 16 years later, Paper Excellence insists there are no ties between the two sides.
“Paper Excellence is owned solely by Jackson Wijaya and is completely independent from Asia Pulp & Paper,” it said in a statement to CBC and its media partners last week. “Nobody other than Jackson has ever been or is the ultimate owner or controller of any of the companies in Paper Excellence.”
That air of independence is important to its business. Most of Paper Excellence’s operations have some kind of FSC certification, which enables a pulp-and-paper company to command higher prices for its output and attract environmentally conscious brands as clients. But if it were shown to be a branch of the disqualified APP, Paper Excellence could put its certification at risk.
The company’s claims of independence are also impossible to verify. Paper Excellence is a private corporation, and despite saying it’s Canadian-based, its ownership chain actually traces through companies set up in the Netherlands, Malaysia, the Malaysian offshore jurisdiction of Labuan and two shell companies in the British Virgin Islands.
CBC and its media partners — including Glacier Media in B.C., the Halifax Examiner, Radio France and the French newspaper Le Monde — twice asked Paper Excellence to provide some kind of proof of who really owns it. The company did not.
Leaked records show close collaboration
Behind the scenes, though, there is evidence that Paper Excellence and Asia Pulp & Paper have worked cheek-by-jowl on everything from regulatory submissions to supply and pricing, at least until a few years ago.
Emails and internal company documents first obtained by the Halifax Examiner show there was close co-operation between APP staff in China and Paper Excellence personnel. The emails span a relatively short time in the late 2010s and are not necessarily indicative of Paper Excellence’s or APP’s practices today.
In 2017, for instance, Paper Excellence’s Vancouver-based sales executive Edwin Widjaja emailed a vice-president at APP in China, asking for info on how much he should charge a potential client for a kind of wood pulp known as unbleached kraft, or UKP.
The reply came quickly, in the form of a directive. “Right now, don’t sell any UKP to non-sister mills,” the APP executive wrote. “Keep them in your warehouse first while we decide in a couple of days on what to do.… As for 2018, please don’t commit to any long-term contracts till we get our UKP study done.”
The next year, a sales executive for Paper Excellence’s two mills in France had an email exchange with the same APP vice-president in China, also about unbleached kraft. The VP asked for a monthly breakdown of how much one of the French mills was going to produce, and “then we can plan ahead of time how to introduce this new pulp to our customers.”
The exchanges blur the line between corporate entities that are supposedly independent — a red flag, according to Ottawa-based competition expert Keldon Bester.
“That kind of language is red meat for antitrust enforcers,” he said. “What are you really not supposed to talk to your competitors about? Pricing, quantity and distribution.”
The leaked records were provided to the Halifax Examiner, and later to CBC, by a source who said that Paper Excellence’s real nerve centre wasn’t in Richmond, B.C., but in Shanghai, in the same offices as APP. The source said that, in fact, Paper Excellence’s entire back office at the time — the teams handling legal, accounting, finance and market analysis — was run by APP and there were no boundaries between staff working for one or the other company.
“APP staff is PE staff. There is no difference there,” the source said.
CBC agreed to protect the source’s identity out of concerns for their safety.
The source said, for example, that the sales manager for Paper Excellence’s subsidiary in France attended strategy meetings at APP’s Shanghai offices, with other APP teams from Asia and Europe.
“It’s extremely nebulous. You never know who’s working for who,” another former executive at that French subsidiary told CBC’s reporting partner Le Monde, on condition of confidentiality because he still works in the industry.
“I had a direct relationship with the owners of APP. My boss at the time was based in China and our monthly videoconference meetings were held with Teguh Wijaya” — that is, Jackson Wijaya’s father and the chairman of APP.
But an employee who worked for APP for nearly a decade said that didn’t reflect his experience, which was that APP and Paper Excellence were “pretty well siloed.”
However, records show APP employees seem to have handled important Paper Excellence business outright. APP’s outside lawyers and in-house legal department stickhandled submissions to Chinese antitrust authorities when Paper Excellence wanted to buy the Eldorado pulp mill in south central Brazil; ironically, the drafts even went so far as to list APP as a Paper Excellence competitor.
Paper Excellence did not respond to our inquiries about the above allegations.
APP said any suggestion its staff have worked on behalf of or alongside Paper Excellence is wrong. “APP has not shared confidential information with Paper Excellence. Nor have its employees engaged in any work with Paper Excellence,” the company said in response to questions from CBC and its media partners.
Paper Excellence continued its buying spree and swallowed B.C.-based Catalyst Paper in 2019 for an undisclosed price. That was followed by the purchase of the Quebec-American company Domtar in 2021 for $3 billion US. The most recent acquisition is the $2.7-billion US purchase of Quebec-based Resolute Forest Products, completed on March 1. Canada’s Competition Bureau for the most part granted its blessing.
Bester said the Competition Bureau’s process doesn’t provide much opportunity for the public to know what a company did — or didn’t — disclose.
“If the bureau has been misled or things have been omitted that are relevant to the competition analysis, the bureau would be extremely interested in that. So we can’t say for sure because we don’t know what they were and were not provided with.”
Mystery of money from China
It takes billions of dollars to build a new, world-class pulp mill. Paper Excellence’s expansion in Canada deliberately took a different tack. Its earliest acquisitions — initially under the Sinar Mas banner, and later in its own name — were older, often shuttered or insolvent mills in B.C. and Saskatchewan.
But then there were costs for upgrades and repairs. Employees had to be hired. And the company’s ambitions grew.
By 2012, Paper Excellence sought big financing. And it came in the form of credit — $1.25 billion US worth — through a Chinese government-owned bank.
CBC’s investigation has revealed that the China Development Bank had mortgages with a debenture for that amount on three Canadian pulp mills owned by Paper Excellence starting in August 2012 as part of the security for financing that was repayable on demand.
Paper Excellence would not answer questions about how much of that credit it drew on, nor why it sought financing through a Chinese government-owned bank.
The loan was typical of many of the bank’s investments at the time, said Rebecca Ray, a senior academic researcher at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center who studies development finance, including the China Development Bank.
“The kind of very large-scale financing that you were talking about in 2012 for raw commodity production, that comes as no surprise to me in that that’s exactly the same kind of financing in those years that we see to major commodity producers around the world … as China is establishing the supply chains that it needs to support its new cities.”
The discharge of the loan also corresponds to a time frame when the China Development Bank was pulling back from large loans to natural resource companies in favour of the government’s new policy of smaller, more strategic lending, she said.
The mortgages on the Meadow Lake, Mackenzie and Howe Sound mills were discharged over the course of 2020 and replaced with loans from two Indonesian government-owned banks, Bank Mandiri and Bank Negara Indonesia, who now hold those amounts also repayable on demand.
The financing to Paper Excellence is the only time the China Development Bank or the Indonesian banks have registered any mortgages in British Columbia, the province’s land records show.
The company didn’t directly answer why it chose to finance in this way. “Paper Excellence constantly reviews market conditions and market circumstances in determining its financing strategies/options,” the company said last week.
“To see that one of the biggest forestry players on Crown land in eastern Canada is an Indonesian giant, formerly financed by China, is not reassuring to us. We do not want to plunder our forests here in Quebec,” said Daniel Cloutier, executive director of the Unifor local that represents unionized workers at Resolute and Domtar.
Lumber and forestry have long been of interest to China, and the China Development Bank often plays a key role in advancing the country’s goals, says Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a former top official in the federal government’s Industry and Natural Resources departments, and an expert on China.
“It’s often one of the first organizations in the door when China wants to enter a market and acquire resources in another country,” McCuaig-Johnston said.
“So, in the form of a loan, that doesn’t seem too difficult or too threatening to a government. But very often, that will then morph into other arrangements. And so it’s where you actually get control by a Chinese company or Chinese interests that you really run into problems.”
McCuaig-Johnston said companies owned by foreign interests with Chinese partners could decide to export its production to China and Indonesia.
“The reason Canadians should care is that we have seen in China’s behaviour in other resource companies that they will often export all of the product to China for China’s own use,” she said. “Canada needs its own products from its own natural resources and we need to be assured that we will have access to that.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Cloutier.
“China has a voracious appetite for kraft pulp and in Quebec we’re barely self-sufficient. What are they up to? Is their goal to get their supply from us? What impact is this going to have on our own needs?”