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Focus On

UK Paper Economy

Once a sector that was among the biggest and most profitable in the world, Brendan Perring analyses how the paper industry has fared since the dark days of 2008

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Antalis’ main warehouse is a classic example of a major paper distributor that has reinvented itself for the modern print industry, now catering for large-format media, hardware, and consumables

Paper in a crease

The golden era of the globe’s paper industry reached its peak in the late 1990s, before the growing juggernaut of internet communications, the world wide web, and later mobile digital devices changed the industry’s landscape in a way not seen since the invention of the printing press in the time of Guttenberg.

Perhaps its lowest dip came in 2008, when the world’s economies collapsed in a global financial crisis, leading to the fall of Lehman Bros, the nationalisation of some UK banks and the death of high street pick ‘n’ mix giant Woolworths. Despite all that some merchants battened down the hatches and continued to remain profitable, while others went up in smoke. And one in particular defied all the odds to actually make an expansion move in these troubled times.

Jason Middleton, managing director of Vision Paper and Board, provided Print Monthly with a snapshot of what that year meant for the paper industry in the UK: “For the print and paper industry, 2008 was just as tumultuous: Walstead began their domination of the print trade with their purchase of the Wyndeham Group; Quebecor Corby closed down, Felix Dennis stepped in to save Butler and Tanner and Polestar were still refinancing. 

We are still small enough to demonstrate the same hunger for business we had at the start,” says Jason Middleton of Vision Paper and Board

“At this time, the Paperlinx Group held sway in the paper merchant sector, although still trading as Paperco, Robert Horne, and Howard Smith; Curtis Fine Paper closed its doors in Scotland, M Real sold its coated paper business to Sappi and Two Sides was launched to promote the environmental benefits of paper.”

Against this backdrop, executives at Middleton Paper Group took the brave decision to launch a brand new UK paper merchant: Vision Paper and Board.

Middleton continues: “It was a move we had been considering for some while, and, despite the difficult trading conditions and economic situation, the time somehow felt right to launch.”

Middleton Paper were known as the ‘merchant’s merchant’, sheeting and delivering a range of bespoke and standard sizes to paper merchants, and some printers, under a variety of different labels and paper grades.

Middleton explains the decision to launch a separate company to sell directly to the print trade, while utilising the infrastructure and services of Middleton Paper was not an easy one.

“We had our established business to consider,” he explains, adding “but our research indicated that the market was dominated by two large players and that printers were crying out for smaller, independent suppliers to increase choice and competitiveness. In the end, we just decided it was the right thing to do and exactly what the market needed.”


Our research indicated that the market was dominated by two large players and that printers were crying out for smaller, independent suppliers

In the early days, Vision Paper and Board was seen merely as a vehicle for Middleton Paper products and services, but, as their range of paper and suppliers became more established they were able to stand alone as an independent paper merchant in their own right and compete alongside more established players.

Ian Pentland, commercial director for Vision Paper and Board also weighs in on the magnitude of what the company was taking on: “From the start we wanted to compete with the major merchants, so we were constantly on the lookout for new suppliers of permanent brands, as we saw it as important to offer the same quality to our customers under the same branding time after time, so we eventually were able to launch our ‘Brands You Can Trust’ promise.”

Today, those brands include own label Quartz Gloss and Silk, Celebr8, and Calisto Hi Bulk coated paper, alongside mill branded products such as Nevia, Accurate Top Strong, and MM Topliner from Mayr-Melnhof, Iberset from the Navigator company, and Extraprint from APP.

With the backing and resources of the Middleton Paper Group, itself almost 60 years-old, Vision Paper and Board today is able to offer a number of services to the print trade, including its Size Bespoke Sheeting initiative, enabling their customers to buy sheets in a size more suited to the job rather than sometimes wasteful off the shelf sizes.

“From a small start, Vision Paper and Board are now the UK’s largest merchant and converter, with a customer base ranging from the south west of England to Scotland and all points in between,” says Middleton, who adds: “We have our fleet of branded vehicles operating from our national conversion distribution centre conveniently located just off the M6 in the West Midlands.”

Today, Vision Paper and Board hold around 20,000 tonnes of stock at any one time, both in sheets and cutter reels ready for rapid conversion.

“Back in 2008, it was a new idea for a paper merchant to use cutter reels to sheet their own stocks, in both standard and bespoke sizes, and no one really knew if it would work,” Pentland remembers, before adding: “Ten years later, we are proud to still be around, and still growing, where other, more traditional suppliers, have floundered or spectacularly crashed.”

Middleton chimes in: “We are still small enough to demonstrate the same hunger for business we had at the start, but also large enough to hold our own in a fiercely competitive market and provide our customers with the range and depth of products they need.”

So, the question now is: how, despite the recession and the massive challenges presented to the paper industry—and of course its print industry cousins—did Vision manage to buck the trend? Well, a lot of it has to do with identifying that while the long-run volume market for sectors such as print were taking a hammering, there were strong growth niches around areas such as speciality and digital print media. And this is something others in the sector that have achieved success have also managed to achieve.

Riding the wave


Another key example is British master papermaker James Cropper, which made a real splash with its Premium Papers range at this year’s Paperworld exhibition in Frankfurt.

James Cropper’s exhibit at Paper World 2018 showcased the diverse range of new markets and applications that have opened up in the sector

Internationally renowned for colour quality and consistency, James Cropper is able to create virtually any shade—a key strategic advantage as marketers and designers now often demand short runs of specialised media for targeted and often versioned print campaigns.

On display were Liquorice, Black Lentil, and Elderflower White, while from its Dolcelicious showcased Black, a premium non-carbon paper with high rub resistance; Bowston Black, a solid dyed paper and board product made from 100 percent reworked fibre; Porcelain, a smooth white graphic board; and TacCard, a high-quality bright white board suited for packaging of premium products.

Andy Smith, export director at James Cropper, explains what is driving the decisions about the paper grades it develops in light of the trends sweeping the sector: “We wanted to truly demonstrate our colour capabilities across the spectrum, but with a particular focus on the creative potential of black and white shades. Black is dark and challenging, but can be the most powerful of shades, and white is a key element of any palette, projecting purity and clarity.

“Our skill and craftsmanship, which has been handed down through generations, combined with modern technology, enables us to create truly exceptional papers that will add character to designs and ultimately elevate a brand’s identity.”

This reference to ‘brand identity’ is really key as to what is fuelling green shoots of growth in the UK’s paper economy. E-mail and digital marketing really has hit a cliff edge due to its abuse and over saturation, with the new GDPR legislation turbo-charging its descent, and into that gap has stepped beautifully designed, targeted print that has been produced on tactile and eye-catching papers that enhance marketing products perceived value.

On the money

Indeed, it is this trend that saw Mitsubishi Hi Tec inkjet papers recently push to have its papers accredited for use on HP’s Page Wide web press. The manufacturer specifically identified its Jetscript DL 84 inkjet paper—a double-sided matt coated product range with grammages from 89 to 248gsm—as key to helping today’s printers achieve the colour consistency and quality needed on digital applications such as versioned books, posters, and greeting cards.

Mitsubishi’s inkjet papers from the Jetscript DL 84 series have now been approved for use by HP on its Page Wide web press systems

“Our special colour receiver layer applied to the DL 84 series allows not only a quality print without pre-treatment on the HP Page Wide web press, but also achieves a large colour space (> 250,000 CIE lab units) and offers an excellent print and image quality,” says Monika Stubbe, head of sales inkjet papers, Mitsubishi Hi Tec Paper.

With this trend for businesses to increasingly look for innovative ways to take their communications up a notch, Antalis has also been working hard to remind printers of the benefits to be had by making full use of the colour capabilities of the Xerox Premium Never Tear range.

According to the paper distributor’s latest research findings, 85 percent of consumers believe colour plays a huge part when purchasing a product, with 80 percent revealing that colour is ultimately responsible for brand recognition. The result is mounting pressure on businesses across a full spectrum of sectors to ensure their marketing and internal communications are not only informative and on brand but also ooze aesthetic appeal.

As such, the Xerox Premium Never Tear range, currently available in 14 colours including pastel hues, has been specifically developed to give printers another option to tap a growing segment of sectors looking for greater colour capabilities for creating paper-based communications that really hit the mark.

The Xerox Premium Never Tear range stocked by Antalis is currently available in 14 vibrant colours including pastel hues

The range comprises of a highly durable, tear proof, and waterproof film that can be printed on using colour and mono laser printers—making it suitable for high quality digital printing and outdoor applications such as safety signage, clothes tags, menus, placemats, and table tents, to name just a few.


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In addition, by combining Premium Never Tear’s enhanced colour range with white and metallic toners, customers can achieve truly striking designs by optimising colour vibrancy that gives outstanding image quality, as well as high opacity.

Susana Marambio, head of channel for office at Antalis, comments: “Amid the upsurge of digital marketing in recent years, printers need to remind their clients that consumers retain information better when it is communicated via tangible channels such as signage, brochures, and menus, where the use of colour is increasingly linked to its effectiveness as a marketing tool.

“Tear’s extensive range of colours create eye-catching and high-quality finishes for frequently handled documents and outdoor applications. For the enterprising printer, it’s an apt time to hammer home the benefits that this truly innovative range can offer, not just in terms of marketing communication, but more importantly in terms of safety and sustainability.”

Expansion = positivity


Another very key trend that can be gleaned from the continued innovation and expansion of the players’ above product ranges, is that if there was no new growth to be exploited in the paper sector, they would not be doing so.

Another perfect case in point is Warren, one of the UK’s biggest independent carton board, graphical board, and paper stockists. It recently announced that due to increasing demand, it has extended its stock range of Chenming Paper’s Poplar GC2 H/S and Poplar Super. With more than 200 different specifications available, Warren now has a product and size variation to suit most customer requirements.

Commenting on the extension of the stock ranges for Chenming’s Poplar GC2 H/S and Poplar Super GC1, Warren’s commercial director, John Turner, explains: “We have deliberately spent time developing and establishing the Poplar brand into the market, ensuring that we have a consistent grade available for the long-term. We have committed to large stock levels with over 150 sizes in the Poplar GC2 range alone, offering our customers as many options as possible outside of standard sizes to try and optimise the best fit option—therefore reducing wastage and keeping the offer as competitive as possible.”

The paper industry’s golden era of volume production may be in the past, but the above findings and the march back towards print by marketers tired of failing mass-market digital mediums are proof that growth is firmly back on the agenda. The truth remains today, as it ever has, that if you want to say something meaningful—while transmitting passion, emotion, and a human touch—then ink on paper is the  best way to do it.

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