Keep it in the family

4 August 2011

Mark Cropper is chairman of James Cropper plc. Joanne Hunter finds out his vision for the group’s speciality and fine papers business.

Located in the English Lake District, James Cropper plc – an innovator in fine and speciality papers, laminating and embossing – has long been a part of the bookbinding, fine art and luxury packaging markets worldwide.

Family ownership of a company, when it works, is great for customers and wider stakeholders, Mark believes. “My father was chairman of the board from 1971 to 2010 and with the board and management team he managed a structured investment of about €100 million in technology, and developing know-how and capability. We remain an agile, energetic and forward looking business. We don’t take a long time to make decisions if the business case stands up, and this, we feel, makes us different.”

For Mark, paper’s potential is a constant source of excitement. “What really is fascinating is the sheer range of finishes that can be achieved. What the paper does is important, not just how it looks.

“Face papers for gift boxes, reproduction silks, rubber and wood are produced by laminating biodegradable film onto paper stock. And in high-end carrier bags, we ensure the colours don’t bleed out, that they are rub resistant and, where necessary, meet food-contact standards.”

The company’s pulp fibre mostly comes from Scandinavia. “Recently we celebrated 100 years of being supplied by a Finnish company. This partnership is an example of how we have built our business over the years. With suppliers and clients we build relationships that will last, so we can share our respective strengths and core competences. Long service leads to the highest quality, strong product and development, as well as agile supply chains.”

Bioplastics technology brings a rush of new opportunities for paper, using cellulose fibre and PLA (polylactic acid) for cutting-edge innovation.

“We are doing things with it that have not been done before. We produced a ‘soft touch’ finish for one luxury brand, for example. We formulated the chemistry in our lab to produce a suede effect. Initially it was used with a particular coloured face paper and now we are reproducing it across different colours.”

Confidentiality agreements prevent Mark naming names, but in the world’s capitals and fashion centres, James Cropper workmanship is in display cabinets, it swings from the arms of shoppers and is in prized keepsakes.

“We have always had the technology, the flexibility and the scientists, so we have the capability in place before the rest of the market, enabling us to keep ahead of competition, but also to ensure we continue to bring new ideas to our clients.”

Within the paper industry, the firm’s real competitors are those printing on to cheaper paper, which can be a false economy when colour consistency is key in branded packaging. As one luxury brand – now a James Cropper customer – found out. It had lost control of its supply chain and fallen victim to counterfeiting.

“We’ve now transformed the supply chain of that company. We are careful to supply only to licensed converters. We develop a special grade with the brand, agree prices and feed the converting supply chain. This gives the customer total control.”

On his role in the family firm, he says: “I worked my way back from outside of the company, although all my life I have been around the business. My work in the renewable energy finance sector not only enabled me to build relationships for the future, but also my knowledge of the environmental world and how it opens up new challenges and opportunities for our papermaking division. It allows me to take part in building our future environmental strategy.

“I hope the most valuable asset I bring to the company is an entrepreneurial mindset. The question has to be: ‘why don’t we do that, what is stopping us?’

“We are in an extremely creative phase, going to the customer, having customers come to us. We can do a lot of things people don’t know about. There is the opportunity to innovate and we need to get closer to the user. We want customers to come and tell us what they want.”

Mark Cropper

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James Cropper

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