Second Helpings: Lunch with Jerry French, Owner of French Paper Company

Second Helpings: Lunch with Jerry French, Owner of French Paper Company
By Ed Roberts

Thank you for joining me for a second helping of lunch with Jerry French, owner of French Paper Company. Today you’ll find out how good design has impacted the success of Jerry’s family business and why he thinks Charles S. Anderson is a “mad scientist” in a reoccurring nightmare! Jerry’s having tomato soup, grilled cheese and a hot pepper. Pull up a chair, take a few moments for yourself and enjoy the rest of my conversation with Jerry French. Happy Thanksgiving!

How did you meet Charles S. Anderson and what made you decide to hire him?
Back in the 1980s, we started receiving printed samples from a kid in Minneapolis who absolutely loved our paper. This kid was crazy about Speckletone, which was first introduced in the 1950s. He even wrote letters about how much he liked the authentic look and texture of the stock. That kid was Chuck.

After a few conversations, I decided to travel to Minneapolis and meet Chuck who was working at Duffy Group, an affiliate of Fallon McElligott & Rice, a top advertising agency at the time. He pitched Lamar Lundell and I on an amazing new Speckletone promotion. The results of his solid design work put French Paper Company on the radar of almost every working designer in the United States, transforming Speckletone from one of our worst selling sheets to a bestseller in six months.

Chuck’s design aesthetic seems to reject dull, lifeless communication design and celebrate a personal expression that is inspired simultaneously by history and pop culture. At the time we had no idea that Chuck would help usher in the Postmodern Design movement in American graphic design. All we knew was that he was designing some really interesting stuff and printing it all on our papers. As a result we’ve been with Chuck ever since. I believe our 27-year partnership is one of the longest designer/client relationships in the history of American graphic design.

How has design impacted or influenced your business?
Our sales force is small, so we’re forced to find ways to stay relevant in the minds of designers. The only way to do that is through the development of high-quality products and designing powerful promotions. If a designer hangs one of our promotions in their office, it’s a small victory for us and another example of design’s impact. My goal is to create products that will last decades and span generations. I know good design will help us achieve that goal.

You’re definitely someone who truly gets it! That’s awesome.

When I think of French Paper Company, I think of quality first and then I think of “Inflatable Jerry.” How did the idea come about to use your likeness to help promote your brand?
Our family name [French] comes with some brand challenges. Some people think the “French” in French Paper Company means paper imported from France! We are the oldest continually running family-owned business in Michigan. So we came up with the tagline “French as American as it gets.” We then came up with the Mr. French brand to link a person (me) to the name and the company for use in paper promotions.

I don’t always agree with how Chuck and the designers at CSA decide to portray me, especially not the first prototypes of inflatable Jerry samples. I can remember blowing up this deflated vinyl figure of myself and it wasn’t until I was completely finished that I discovered the nozzle was located in the crotch. I literally was blowing myself up! I thought those flaky designers at CSA got me again! I immediately called Chuck and told him to move the nozzle so that our customers wouldn’t make the same disturbing discovery. When the shipment of 20,000-finished inflatable Jerry promotions arrived I discovered they did move the nozzle, from the crotch to the ass! I take it all in stride because our collective sense of humor has been one of our greatest asses … I mean assets.

What’s been your most unusual custom paper project request; was it challenging to produce?
We always have fun and challenging custom projects to work on. Some of these projects have produced amazing sheets and others were nightmares. One of the most unusual and fun requests was mixing coffee into a sheet developed for Starbucks 25th anniversary annual report. One of the scariest projects was trying to create Dur-O-Tone Butcher on our paper machine. This idea was one of Chuck Anderson’s and we were virtually on the edge of either ruining the calendar stack or starting a fire, but a really nice sheet was created. Chuck was like a mad scientist. He kept yelling, “JUST A LITTLE MORE!” It’s been a re-occurring nightmare.

A major magazine recently decided to stop printing its weekly edition. Some say print is either dying or dead. What do you think?
Print is absolutely not dead. We are well aware that there are print mediums that no longer make as much sense. But there are many paper clients who still rely on printed pieces like direct mail to generate greater business than advertising online would generate. I believe that paper is best utilized as an integral part of a finished, printed design—designs and messages that matter. The kinds of important messages that are made to keep and commemorate timelessly. Paper used in direct mail is nearly 100% deliverable and not subject to spam blocking.

If you could grab a bite with anyone in or outside the design industry (alive or dead), who would it be and why?
There is a whole list of people and most of them are dead. I’m sure that a psychologist could psychoanalyze me for years and still not know what’s wrong with me. I’d really like to bring back my forefathers. I think it would be great to get all six generations together around a table for dinner. My guess is that it would be a long meal and some alcohol might be involved.

Thanks for having lunch with us Jerry. You’re one corporate CEO who truly understands the importance and value of good design. Now, can you help a brotha out with a pair of those cool 80s-inspired paper shutter shades?

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.