French Paper Company
The family behind the Michigan mill is as passionate about paper as it was a 140 years ago.
For over 140 years, French Paper has been family-owned. And that's not a marketing technicality: when NoMa called to set up this interview we were connected with Brian French himself, great-great-great grandson of the original founder, JW French.
For a paper mill of its age, the company boasts an impressive environmental resume. The entire mill is powered by hydroelectricity it has produced on-site for 90 years and French introduced one of the first recycled papers in 1955.
The company's combination of direct-to-consumer mail order service and strategic location along a shipping route have kept pricing consistently competitive in the art paper retail market. The business has operated in the same location in the town of Niles, MI since 1871. One thing that's changed? The street the factory is on is now called French Street.
NoMa spoke with Brian French about growing up in the paper business, staying afloat for 140 years, and seeing strange papers on the job.
Can you give me a timeline of when the company started and any big changes that happened in the 100+ years that led to where French is now?
Our little company started in 1871 when my great-great-great grandfather, JW French, purchased Michigan Wood Pulp Co. and made it into French Paper Co. At the time the mill had two paper machines (one of which is no longer here) and they produced industrial sheets used in the baking industry. Years later when the demand for that product died out we switched over to text and cover grades, which is where we are today. One of the biggest changes that we made was when my great grandfather Frank made the decision to build a hydroelectric dam to power the mill. They started with one generator which was enough to run the entire mill back then. Today we are up to four, but the original is still running over 90 years later. You have to give the guy a lot of credit for having that kind of creativity and foresight. The biggest change that made us who we are today is the swing towards recycled materials. French Paper is what’s called a non-integrated mill, which basically means that we don’t do any pulp manufacturing. This is a good thing because we avoid the nasty chemical processes, but it also means that we have to source our fiber. During the '50s we began to experiment with recycling material from other companies, and in 1955 we released Speckletone, the first recycled sheet with flecks and shives.
Did you grow up around the factory?
I grew up quite literally a couple blocks from the mill so I was always here pestering my dad, grandpa, and anybody else who was around. The earliest memory I have is riding my bike down after school to watch customers approve the color on their custom sheets. I was probably in first or second grade, way too young to understand what was going on, but old enough to be amazed by meeting representatives from some really cool companies.
How did you end up in your position today?
My first actual job that involved our paper came along with the introduction of our website. For the first five to six years of our site I cut, counted, packed, and shipped orders for some of the coolest designers and printers around. Along with my mom and group of buddies from school we made sure everything got out on time. From there, I went off to college at Michigan State to study business or something like that. About five years ago I graduated and started back at the mill in a full-time position. My dad still says that I haven’t started working yet. Maybe next year.
French Paper has been in Niles, Michigan since 1871. How has staying put for so long affected the city and the company itself?
Niles is an incredible town that seems smaller than it really is. It truly is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, kind of like Cheers but bigger. The real positive for us is that we are in a great lane for shipping. It’s very hard to get more centrally located than we are in terms of shipping lanes. We are also less than 90 minutes from the Chicago, which is one of the largest print markets in the world, so that’s a major positive. The real strength of the town itself has to be the people. We have an incredible work force that has a real passion for paper (as strange as that sounds) and without them French Paper wouldn’t be around today.
Can you explain the hydroelectric power supply? Is the factory really off the grid?
French Paper is located on the St. Joseph River, and we use a dam to change the water level of the river. The change in height allows us to use gravity and push water through the system to turn our four generators. We aren’t completely off the grid because we have a connection that lets us send excess electricity to the power company. Because, why not?
Our connection with our customers is something that we are very proud of, and I think there are a lot of reasons for it. First and foremost would have to be our size. We are a very small company where everyone has multiple roles and puts in long hours. I think most of our printers, whether they are using screen, letterpress, offset, or even digital can relate to that. This also lends itself to our history and consistency. While other mills buy, sell, and merge on what seems like a yearly basis, we remain unchanged for over 142 years and six generations. It takes a long time to create goodwill with the market and every time the other mills change ownership or name they lose some of that. Come to think of it, that might be on purpose. Printers want to know where to get the sheet that they are looking for and all too often they find it has been discontinued by a mill closure or grade consolidation. We do all that we can do avoid that.
The most important reason to us is definitely our quality. We want to put the best product possible into the market and that is our main goal whenever we design a process or a new sheet. We like to believe we do a pretty good job of this and that it keeps our customers coming back order after order and year after year.
Do you do any printmaking personally?
It’s funny that you ask this question because I’m in the process of starting some printmaking. I don’t ever do New Year’s resolutions but this year I decided that I’m going to learn how to screen print. I have most of the equipment that I need so I just need to get it set up and start experimenting. The hardest part for me is going to be artwork since I can barely draw a stick figure. Luckily I can use the CSA Free On French gallery from our site since I’ll only be printing on our sheets.
As far as the mill goes, we stick to what we do best and leave the printing to the professionals.
What's the strangest job you've ever seen someone use your paper for?
With our personality as the small and a slightly eccentric paper mill, we get to be a part of a lot of really fun projects. Some of the weirdest and most impressive papers are made when customers do special inclusions added to the sheet. We have done coffee grounds for Starbucks, money shreds for the Federal Reserve, glitter, carpet byproduct for Shaw Carpeting, grass clippings from a golf course, and even grape byproducts from wineries.
We have some pretty strange end uses are well. Our sheets have been used for anything from shooting targets in the U.S. military to packaging for explosive products. A few years ago our paper was even used to create the world’s largest free standing greeting card.
What's up next for French Paper? What's the next big project?
We recently had our annual meeting with our designers to go over this year’s promotional materials and there are some really amazing pieces on their way. If you’re a fan of design, print, or paper then you’ll love them as much as we do. We have even discussed going back to our roots with some direct mail pieces.
In terms of actual papers, right now we have nine grades and over 100 different colors stocked which is by far the most in the history of the company. Truly, our projects and changes come from the market. We make our decisions based off what designers and printers out in the industry tell us. So whatever is next, we don’t really know.