Over the years, James Cropper has become recognised throughout the world as a speciality and advanced materials group. As a world leader in coloured paper for over 170 years, their products are used in numerous markets, from fine art to luxury retail.
Vision has certainly been key to James Cropper’s success, along with innovation and reinvention. Starting as a traditional paper manufacturer in the village of Burneside on the banks of the River Kent in the idyllic English Lake District, just north of Manchester, the mill soon became one of the first paper mills in the world to make coloured paper from the first synthetic dyes. Over the years, the company has evolved into speciality papers, advanced technical fibre products and 3D moulded plastic-free packaging. The company has enjoyed a special relationship with Metsä Fibre for over a century. Pulp from Finland is mostly used in their speciality coloured papers, but it is also used for their stand-out COLOURFORM moulded packaging products.
“In our paper business, we use between 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of pulp from Metsä Fibre annually,” says Patrick Willink, CTO and one of the 6th generation members of this family business. “Our relationship with Metsä started perhaps in the late 1800s, when we began using pulp from the Nordics when it first became available.”
“The process of making chemical pulp was developed in the Nordics, and we at James Cropper were one of the first in the UK to use it. In fact, we’ve always been quite innovative and like to get involved in new developments whenever we can,” he says.
BECOMING THE COLOUR EXPERTS
As business developed, it was clear to James Cropper that they were not looking to be a big volume player in the market. Instead, they chose to specialise and develop their expert capabilities to differentiate themselves in the face of tough competition.
“We chose to become the colour experts – a niche sector,” Willink explains. “The way we work with colours has set us very much apart from others. We manage all colours and expertise internally and develop our unique capabilities continuously.”
This adds a considerable amount of value to the company’s end products.
“By colour, we don’t just mean tints. We offer a huge array – and with over 3,500 different colours in our library, we produce hundreds of blacks, many shades of white and everything in between – from the wood pulp we start with as our raw material,” he says.
A COLOUR TO MATCH
The company also takes pride in creating new colours for new or existing customer needs, typically producing over 1,000 custom papers each year. “Some house or brand colours can be very demanding and unusual – but it is essential that our paper colours match precisely,” Willink says.
The challenges with each of these projects differ every time, depending on the end use of the paper product. When carrying a paper bag, it is essential that the colour doesn’t rub off or leave any mark. The colours must be well-embedded and fixed to the paper product, so that the colour does not run if it rains. And the paper package must protect and safely transport the product it contains.
Another factor that can affect colour is light. So, light-fastness and fade resistance are always considered in colour development. Picture mounting board, for example, is produced in hundreds of colours for the interior design market. It must have conservation properties to protect the artwork it frames, but also cannot fade if exposed to the sun.
“We have extremely rigid tolerances that we have to meet for each and every one of our products,” Willink stresses.
GROWTH ON THE BACK OF SUSTAINABILITY
Despite its small size, James Cropper has earned a widespread reputation for high-quality coloured luxury paper and packaging products. Approximately, 50% of their production is for domestic UK use, while the other 50% is exported throughout the world.
“We’re seeing a really strong and growing trend in using sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging throughout the world,” Willink explains. “As the momentum increases, we are seeing mass collaboration across supply chains. We all have a part to play in making packaging more environmentally friendly and ensuring valuable resources are kept in the loop for longer. Such positive growth is only possible on the back of sustainability, which creates more opportunities for people, jobs and innovation.”
He continues: “The topic of sustainability is becoming ever more important, as the world wakes up to the damage we’ve caused to our planet and the tide of public opinion is increasing against the ‘take-make-dispose’ approach for single use packaging. And although sustainability is a core message in all we do, the media is certainly driving that message home to the wider public audience on our behalf.”
As a company, James Cropper fully supports sustainability. All of their pulp suppliers are committed to sustainable forest management, and the company itself repurposes and reuses as many of their resources as possible. The mill is reminded of its responsibility on a daily basis, thanks to its location in the stunning region of England renowned for its vast natural beauty.
LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP – STILL GOING STRONG
Patrick Willink is quick to comment on the reasons James Cropper has continued to use Metsä Fibre’s pulp for more than 100 years.
“Consistent quality,” he says, “not that this is a differentiator, as such. We get consistent quality from many of our suppliers. But this is a prerequisite for our success.”
“In addition, Metsä Fibre has always taken us seriously. We are absolutely miniscule in terms of their international customers, but we’ve always had a great relationship with the company and with lots of the individuals in various roles throughout the business,” he emphasises.
“For us, it is most important that we’re working with individuals, not a corporation. When we’re dealing with people, we can discuss opportunities, issues – whatever – openly and with full trust in each other. With the people from Metsä Fibre, we have a sense that we matter. And they have always treated us like that – which makes us continue to consider them one of our most valued partners.”
MEETING THE INNOVATORS
Willink regularly has the opportunity to meet the people from Metsä Fibre, and recently attended an innovation meeting at the company, which he says he would be happy to do again.
In May 2018, Willink also spent a few days at the opening of the renowned Äänekoski bioproduct mill.
“I got to see some others in the company that I don’t get to see all the time,” he says. “The next-generation bioproduct mill in Äänekoski is an impressive project! It is also nice to see that Metsä Fibre is doing what they said they’d do – and they’re doing it well.”
THE RIGHT MIX
Patrick Willink explains that James Cropper always mixes pulp to achieve the various paper attributes required for their specific products.
The mill buys pulp not only from Finland, but also from other regions and suppliers. “In our experience, the quality of the raw material is affected by regional fluctuations. These could be hot summers, forest fires, earthquakes, labour issues such as strikes… or more. Being a niche player, we cannot afford to have our high-quality pulp supply interrupted for whatever reason. Therefore, we source pulp from around the world.”
“In terms of Nordic pulp, we have a new favourite from Metsä Fibre. It’s their latest polysulphide pulp from the Joutseno mill,” Willink says. “It performs well for us and allows us to produce countless different products. Pulp has to be very diversified. And this particular pulp does a great job across our different colours and grades.”
James Cropper can even manufacture just three tonnes of a special colour. With four paper machines plus additional finishing equipment, the mill, which employs 600 people, could be changing colours or grades on an hourly basis.
A BUSINESS FOR MANY GENERATIONS TO COME
Patrick Willink vision for the company extends beyond the next three to five years.
“My vision for James Cropper is to create a business today that will last for many generations to come,” he states.
With six generations behind them – and a strong and sustainable business vision for the future – this paper manufacturer is determined to be a success for generations to come. And Metsä Fibre plans to share in this success story, helping to provide renewal, sustainable growth with its differentiated solutions.