Great companies prosper
Since 1885, G.F Smith has been at the fore of fine paper making thanks to its impeccable eye for design and immaculate attention to detail
The name G.F Smith has imprinted itself upon the history of paper. Whether this is taken in a literal or figurative sense, the result remains the same. As John Haslam, Managing Director at G.F Smith, makes clear: “We are the most respected and remarkable fine paper company – that’s how we like to tag ourselves,” he begins. “From the start, the founding vision of the company has been this: travel the world, create the finest papers, and take them to individuals all over the globe. That is what we did in 1885, and that is what we do now. We create desire and encourage nations of graphic designers to use our papers.”
Established 137 years ago in Hull, UK, G.F Smith’s self-confessed obsession with the intrinsic splendor of paper has not gone away. As the popular paper merchant steadily expanded its influence across the world, that passion also steadily blossomed.
Today, G.F Smith has firmly marked its presence in 32 countries. From New Zealand to Korea and from Singapore to the US, the paper making giant has inspired many generations to get creative with the endless and universal opportunities afforded by paper. Still headquartered in the company’s home city of Hull, G.F Smith also has marketing and sales teams in London, as well as partners around the world who support its global mission.
To cater for this international demand, G.F Smith has cutting-edge paper mills operating out of the UK, Japan, and Bavaria. In turn, it produces innovative and eye-catching product lines like Colorplan, which features 55 color options, 25 embossing types, as well as ten different paper weights – all made in the UK. Also available is the Fine Collection, which offers professionals the best print performance due to its use of unrivalled coated and uncoated paper.
Yet, according to John, all this innovation and success stems from two things: paper being the passion and a true belief that people are its foundation. He says: “At G.F Smith, everything is about our team. Consequently, they believe in the brand – and if our people believe in what we do, then it’s an awful lot easier for the world to believe in what we do. Our team is unique, dynamic, and located in countries all over the globe. Their mission is to celebrate G.F Smith in these various places. In turn, we create desire through standards of excellence in both our service and our product.
“Our success boils down to one simple fact: people buy from people,” John adds. “Going back hundreds of years, merchants would sell people the best paper or silk or cigars. But the buyer always sought out the seller. Little has changed. Therefore, we strongly believe that if we can build and develop strong relationships with our customers, like a classic merchant, then we can offer them the finest goods on the market. As a result, people know the name G.F Smith, and they trust it.”
A leading market position is never guaranteed, and mightier companies have fallen into obscurity. Therefore, even after 137 years, G.F Smith is still aiming to innovate and grow its global links. “Our business continues to vary and change,” John explains. “We have numerous sectors: for general menus and leaflets used in hospitality, for greeting cards and envelopes, for luxury packaging, just to name a few. The customer provides the specification, and this goes to the printer or convertor. If the order is processed in the UK but is needed by a client in, say, China or Turkey, then there’s no issue. We’ve established G.F Smith as a global brand – that means the same paper and coloring is available all over the world.”
From a manufacturing point of view, the technology processing these orders must remain up-to-date and efficient. Naturally, with global recognition comes certain expectations. “Our two main cylinder embossing machines are capable of dealing with high volumes of paper,” John points out. “They create an effect that makes the paper feel almost like leather. We also own a brilliant laminating machine, and our comprehensive suite of treating machines prepare paper for HB Indigo printing, converting the product through a sapphire solution so that it can go into an Indigo printing press (an alternative to lithographic printing).”
More recently, John explains, G.F Smith acquired a renowned art supplies manufacturer, R. K. Burt, to expand its already large production line. “We purchased the company just before the pandemic,” he notes. “R. K. Burt supplies art paper for the artist. Following the acquisition, we moved all its manufacturing kit up to Hull, enabling us to make premium A3 and A5 drawing and watercolor pads. The paper doesn’t stretch or bleed or fade. It’s a technical sheet of paper for the artist. Ultimately, the breadth of converting that we do at G.F Smith meant that the joining of R. K. Burt was set to be a perfect marriage.”
Then the pandemic hit. It had an unmistakable impact on the paper merchant. Only two times, John informs us, has G. F Smith lost money: once during World War II, when London and Hull were relentlessly bombed; and the other when Covid-19 pummeled every industry in its wake.
“We did lose money during the pandemic,” John comments. “But with each wave, we grew stronger. I always remind myself of this: good companies will survive but great companies will prosper. G.F Smith is a great company. So, from the day the pandemic hit, we were meeting via Zoom every hour and a half – firefighting, trying to understand what was going on, reflecting on the future. Therefore, by the initial global shut down, we’d made a plan to survive and prosper.
“We did anticipate a decrease in sales, and the losses were staggering: a 70 percent reduction in sales overnight,” he explains. “When that happens, we lift the company up and flip it upside down. We look at the belly of the company and decide how to drag ourselves through this. However, it was inevitable that there would be casualties. We had to close the photographic sector of the business. We’ve been public about it: we protected everyone with voluntary redundancy, and most of those people got another job. It was really sad, but we are now back on track.”
Heading in the right direction once more, G.F Smith intends to communicate with the market it has led for more than a century, reestablishing its extensive network of international clients and partners. During the relative quietness afforded by Covid-19, G.F Smith created a new, forward-looking plan for the business to guarantee its success.
How will it go about enacting this plan? “With a lot of noise,” answers John. “We’re intent on shouting. The whole marketing machine is now firing on all cylinders, and we have a completely new strategy. We’re still selling beautiful paper – but with more focus on the individual people involved. Marketing has been accelerating, with a growing emphasis placed on physical events. For example, we’ve just taken the whole sales team to Germany to visit a paper mill of ours and to engage with what they are doing there.
“It’s going to take another year or so to get where we want to be in terms of profitability,” John concludes. “However, we’re certainly on the right side of the line again. As we are independent and privately owned, we’re able to make those decisions which bring us closer to our destiny. Indeed, if Covid-19 has proved anything, it’s this: no matter what gets thrown at G.F Smith, the business will be able to survive and march forward into the new world.”
Services: Paper and packaging