French Paper turns 140

Published 7:31 pm Sunday, May 15, 2011

The posters printed up to commemorate French Paper Company’s 140th anniversary stand out from a wall in the lobby of the company’s offices, in Niles.

They are bold, rich in color, unique — a testament to the company’s rich history and  a philosophy that has led to a stream of success with no end in sight.

Still, it’s hard to know where to start when talking about the French Paper Company.

Now in its sixth generation, the family run business is considered by some to be the oldest family owned company in the state.

Brian French, the sixth of the French generations, is the latest to join a family history which began in 1871.

Prior to that, “my great-great-great-grandfather was running a paper mill for another company,” French said, which led him eventually to Three Rivers and to Michigan Pulp and Paper.

“He eventually took it over and purchased it,” he said.

And in 1871, J.W. French started French Paper Company in Niles.

Fast forward 140 years and one might expect the era of email, text messages and Facebook to have hit the paper-making industry pretty hard.

The company itself acknowledges the changes in industry in a special promotional printing that gives a brief history on the business.

“While other mills are closing, selling and merging, we’re still family-owned and operated,” it states. And still growing.

French Paper Company produces a wide variety of custom papers and paper products, and boasts an impressive customer list including Tiffanys, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, GM, Coca-Cola and Eli Lilly who come to the family run Niles business for everything from signature envelopes in the famous Tiffany blue to cologne boxes.

Most recently, the company gained notice when it was featured in the AMC television drama series “Mad Men.”

Those opportunities, French said, are primarily a result of good word of mouth. It’s actually fitting — a time-honored way of getting and keeping new and returning business, for a time-honored company.

“A lot of the time it comes out of just word of mouth,” French said. “We do a lot of really cool design stuff … We’re known as the designer mill. Designers like us and we like them and people start talking and the next thing you know we end up getting a cool job like that.”

The mill just finished a special project for the Federal Reserve, which enlisted French Paper to develop a specialty paper with pieces of money in it. That, as a matter of fact, was not the first such project the company has done. They once made a paper with coffee grounds for Starbucks and grass clippings for a golf course.

If there’s one thing French is quick to attribute the company’s success to, it’s an unflinching fear to take on new challenges and directions within its industry.

“A lot of it’s just been the willingness to change,” French said. “We’ve been able to change our product offering and kind of, almost like a chameleon we’ve been able to be what the market needs us to be. And then a lot of it is just dumb luck.”

The company has watched competitors come and go. During its beginnings in Niles, there were three other paper mills in the area alone.

Whether bought up or rigid in their product offering, French Paper Company has surpassed the limitations of its competitors.

When others limited the number of colors of their specialty papers, French released a vast color palette of options. They now create more than 250 custom colors a year.

Where others say no, French said, French Paper Company says yes.

“Again, a lot of times it’s just the willingness to say yes,” French said. “Those jobs that we’ve done, a lot of mills have turned it down. And we say well why not, lets try it.”

Ingenuity and innovation runs deep. Before it became trendy or fashionable to go green the company built its own hydroelectric power plant, which provides most of its energy from the St. Joseph River.

Before recycled symbols began popping up on everything from plastic bottles to coffee cup sleeves, French Paper was producing recycled paper in the 1950s.

Even today, there’s no such thing as scrap paper at the mill. The business has carefully honed its process to allow every last bit to be reused and reproduced.

An innovative spirit and flexibility has led French Paper Company to high end projects and a number of international customers. Yet at the same time, the company stays true to its roots.

Though it never found much promise in a storefront, French Paper Company has found an easy way to produce its specialty papers and designs in smaller quantities through its website.

When papers made through its mill are used for unique designs, by customers or artists, those designs are shared through French Paper’s Facebook page.

And not once, French said, did his family ever think of moving the mill out of his hometown.

“It’s where we’re comfortable,” he said. “Where is better? You can’t get a better workforce than Niles, the economy here isn’t the greatest but everybody helps you. The city is always willing to help. You really can’t beat Niles, there’s no reason to leave. You couldn’t pull us out of here. And it’s pretty hard to move a paper machine.”

So what does a 140th anniversary mean to the latest generation French, who was on the path to becoming a lawyer when he joined the family business?

“More than anything its just showing that it can be done. It’s amazing, people will see a second generation now and think wow that’s great … More than anything it’s a testament to Niles that we can support a company this long.

“French Paper is the people,” he said. “It’s not the name, it’s everyone.”