Lunch with Inflatable Jerry … Hot Air Not Included!

Lunch with Inflatable Jerry … Hot Air Not Included!
By Ed Roberts

Three years ago I took a job in a new town that required me to rebuild an in-house corporate communications department from the ground up. I began by researching and hiring a corporate coach to help with the development of a strategic plan and a set of core values that would govern the department. I moved forward with hiring a designer and two copywriters. I searched for and found the best printers, Web developers, photographers and paper reps. Then two years later I partnered with a stellar professional organizer who helped organize my teams’ individual offices, common spaces and day-to-day workflow operations.

For two years straight, I worked my tail off six and a half days a week—sometimes working until midnight or beyond—putting all the pieces of this in-house puzzle together, dreaming of eventual success. Today, with the assistance of my team, we’ve erected a solid example of a small, high-performing in-house corporate communications department. Along the way we’ve pushed the boundaries of expectations and created some incredibly effective work that exceeded our wildest dreams and educated hundreds of thousands of customers.

What’s at the core of our success? High-quality work and a strong team that has now become a family with a singular vision.

A little over a year ago, I remember specifying paper for a poster that had Russian Constructivist design influences. Every paper sampled simply missed the mark. Then my designer and I looked at one sample book that made us forget all about specifying paper and got us chatting like two kids in awe over the Mr. French brand promotions. For more than an hour we reminisced about receiving various promotions like Double Jointed Jerry, various posters designed by Charles S. Anderson, and discussed how inspiring the designs of the sample books were over the years. When we finally came to our senses, we selected an uncoated sheet. It was Dur-O-Tone Butcher White, and it ended up being the perfect textural match for our design.

I have long admired Mr. French brand promotions, especially Inflatable Jerry! I hope you enjoy (as much as I have) my lunch with the real Jerry French, owner of the French Paper Company. What he has to say is definitely not full of hot air.

Hey Jerry, what’s for lunch? Let me guess … a turkey sandwich.
Fortunately, I live close enough to work that I can usually go home and eat leftovers. Unfortunately, there are no leftovers and since the temperature is 19 degrees, I’m thinking grilled cheese, tomato soup and maybe a hot pepper sounds pretty good.

What are you most passionate about?
I truly love the community where I live and work in Niles, Michigan. One of the most enjoyable projects I’ve had the pleasure of working on is the Salvation Army’s Backpack Program. We have raised enough money to fill 225 backpacks every week with six healthy meals for the children to eat while at home. I also have an old 1965 Ford Mustang that my Dad and I bought in 1974 for $500—American Made in Michigan, of course! I tinker with it once in a while. My wife says it’s to get away from her but I think she is all right with that.

Smell is one of our most keen senses; it can shake loose long lost memories. Do you remember the first time you ever smelled paper; where were you and what were you doing?
I can remember my father holding my hand as we walked between the machines at the paper mill, then lifting me up to see inside the beaters. Our production processes don’t produce the harsh chemical smells most people associate with paper mills. So I remember being intimidated by the noise, steam and the big rolls turning more than the smell of paper. Truthfully, the only strong odors I can remember from the paper mill came from all the tacos on Taco Tuesdays!

What does family mean to you?
Family is very important to me and means many different things. My family has owned and operated French Paper Company continuously for 142 years, spanning six generations. Just a few miles up the road in the Silverbrook Cemetery are the resting places of my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, the founding fathers of our business. Today there are three generations from our family working together at the mill: My father “Big Ed,” my son Brian and me.

We have always believed that our employees are valued members of our family too, some are second and third generation members of their families to work with us at the mill. We’ve always cared about their well-being. During the great depression the fields in front of our offices were turned into community gardens to help sustain our employees and their families. My grandfather Frank also brought food in by railcar and gave our employees lockers to store their food.

Another form of family that is equally important to me is the paper industry. As you know, this industry has changed dramatically over the last 25 years with the closing of hundreds of mills. Every time one of our friendly competitors shuts down it’s like losing a member of the family. Those of us who remain are optimistic that business will get better.

What is hydroelectric power and why is it significant to French Paper Company?
French Paper Company is located on the banks of the St. Joseph River in Michigan. In 1922, my grandfather installed a hydroelectric generator to power our operations with clean renewable energy. Simply put, hydroelectric power is energy generated by using water. Our investment in installing the hydroelectric power plant has allowed us to avoid using over one million barrels of fossil fuel to date.

How did French Paper Company grow under Big Ed’s leadership and where do you see the business heading under Brian’s leadership?
Our family’s business has prospered greatly under my father Big Ed’s leadership. One of the things that Dad has done well is hire good people over the span of 77 years. He has a note on his desk that reads: “Hire quality people you can trust.” Honestly, many of the people he hired (on average) worked more than 30 years with us, that is a lot of retirees!

My son Brian offers a great glimpse into our future. There are not many young people joining the paper industry and I think I’m very fortunate as is Tom O’Connor of Mohawk. Both of our sons have decided to join their family’s business. I know Tom is just as proud of his son as I am of mine. I know Brian will do a great job in helping our family business evolve and succeed.

Who are your design heroes?
Well, certainly not that Chuck Anderson! After working with him for the past 27 years he’s more like a member of our family—albeit a “dysfunctional” family member.

Some of the wild ideas that he and those flaky designers at CSA have come up with over the years have made us suspicious of who is working for whom. Like the time they had our logo placed in dozens of urinals at a HOW Conference. Worse yet, they didn’t tell me in advance. I discovered it along with hundreds of designers during a break after the opening session !

I remember looking down while urinating and noticed something printed on the deodorizer cake. It was my logo! The yellow stained type circling the French Paper Company logo read “URINE BUSINESS WITH FRENCH PAPER.” That really pissed me off! When I confronted Chuck, all he said was “You should have seen our number two idea!” In the end, that urinal deodorizer cake became one of the most effective guerrilla marketing tactics in design history.

It’s hard not to see someone who has that kind of power as a hero. I’m fortunate that early in my career I witnessed the results that good design can deliver, which has made me a believer in the power of design for nearly three decades.

Join me tomorrow for second helpings with Jerry French! Find out how good design has impacted his business and why he thinks designer Charles S. Anderson is a “mad scientist” in a reoccurring nightmare.

Ed Roberts is Creative Lead at ElectriCities of NC, Inc. and manages a team of creative superheroes. Follow Ed (@InHouseObs) on Twitter for more inspiration and insight.