Day 245: French Paper

French Paper
Photo courtesy of French Paper

Michigan used to be a place where reams and reams of paper were made. My dad worked at Simpson Paper in Vicksburg for almost 25 years before it shut down (after it became a division Fox River Paper Company based in Wisconsin). There were other paper plants in Parchment, Kalamazoo, Plainwell and other West Michigan towns.

As a news producer I covered several stories on old plant demolitions. It’s a sad part of Michigan’s story, but the Mitten State has another great side to the paper industry. There’s a paper company in Southwest Michigan that’s like “the little engine that could.” This company started more than 140 years ago by the same family that owns it today. Meet French Paper in Niles, Michigan.

French Paper
Photo courtesy of French Paper

Back in 1871, the French family founded this company to make paper. Long before green was the colour du jour, French Paper decided to install a sustainable way to produce its own electricity. In 1922 it installed a hydroelectric dam on the Saint Joseph River. 90 years later French Paper still produces 100% of its electricity with the dam (that’s damn cool!).

Here’s a fact that makes animal right activists and vegans cringe: parchment used to be made from calfskin, sheepskin and goatskin. Well, in 1949 French Paper decided to take innovation to the next level and make an animal-free parchment. Staying with the environmentally friendly theme, the French family pioneered recycled papers in 1955 with “Speckletone.” It’s the first recycled sheet with flecks and shives.

I had the opportunity to chat with the most recent generational representative of French Paper, Brian French. He’s the 6th generation of the French family. Brian works with his dad and grandfather in the family business, among other family members. While working with family may seem like a nightmare for some folks, Brian has great things to say about that and about being a proud Michigan business, born and bred (and a bit of funny commentary!). The following is a virtual conversation we had.

Awesome Mitten: What keeps French Paper in Michigan when so many paper companies have moved or closed down?
Brian French: French Paper sees a lot of benefits from our location. We have utilized the Saint Joseph River for hydroelectric power since 1922 and that has been a real staple of our business. Another benefit of our location is that we are in a great spot to service the entire country with good lead times. There isn’t anywhere that we can’t get a shipment in a few days. For a small mill this is a major bonus. Plus, it’s just too darn hard to move a paper machine.

French Paper
Photo courtesy of French Paper

AM: What benefits do you see in operating in a relatively small community (I know Niles is near the office – would you consider it a small town?)?
BF: Operating in a small town is why French Paper is still around today. For 141 Years Niles has supplied the French family with hard working and supportive employees that truly care about our company. The small town work ethic is something that simply can’t be duplicated. It’s a shame that so many companies are going away from this because it’s a formula that we have seen so much success with.

AM: If you weren’t working in paper, what would you be doing?
BF: It’s hard to imagine not working at French Paper to be honest. I’m not really the corporate type so I would have to say something small business related. I’m not sure what I would be doing, but I can say that I would definitely be doing it in partnership with my family. Let’s hope I don’t have to find out anytime soon.

AM: What are the challenges of running a family business?
BF: Dealing with my family (just kidding). I think there are more positives than there are challenges to a family business. You always hear horror stories, and imagine it like the guys on American Chopper, but it couldn’t be farther from that. The “family” mentality goes a lot deeper than just my Dad, Mom, and Grandpa. Everyone here acts, thinks, and functions as a French. We have a lot of fun at work, as crazy as that sounds.

French Paper
Photo courtesy of French Paper

AM: How do you see the recent resurgence of “local” and “Michigan” working out for your business and Michigan in general?
BF: It’s tough to say because so much of our business comes from outside the state. I think we see more local business from the sheer cost of freight than we really do from people thinking local. Not to say that this doesn’t have an effect of some sort, it’s just difficult to quantify because that decision is made so far down the chain.

AM: Any other thoughts on The Mitten State?
BF: We love Michigan. It has made French Paper what it is today and what it will be in the future. Despite its recent ups and downs, we can’t imagine ourselves anywhere else for our next 141 years.

What can you do with French Paper? It’s awesome for stationary. Check out the French paper samples online and imagine writing letter on some of the amazing sheets of paper! Kids would love drawing on this stuff, too. Scrapbookers, artists, writers, kids and others would do well to check out some of these products. French Paper is another example of a business giving the Mitten State a great name! ~Dan Moyle, Contributing Writer

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