Time and time again, the Swiss paper merchant Fischer Papier AG succeeds in surprising its customers with innovative paper types. We talked to Managing Owner Mr Andreas Bernhard to find out the secret of their success.
1. You are a family-owned paper merchant who in the last 35 years has grown rapidly from 3 to 220 employees, from a handful of products to 500 paper qualities or 10,000 articles. You own a state-of-the art logistics centre with a capacity of 40,000 pallet spaces and a fleet of more than 30 lorries. In Switzerland Fischer Paper is a synonym for quality in terms of product as well as service and particularly for innovation. How do you manage to anticipate and influence trends?
The first source of trends and innovation are clearly our customers. The basis for most innovations in the past was our ability to listen to our customers to find out what moves them and what their needs are. Of course, history also plays a part. When my parents took over the company in 1984 there were already established players in the marketplace; no one waited for us. The big challenge was to find new ways in which to get ourselves noticed in the market by means of innovation.
Over the years, innovation has become a part of our company’s DNA. Our members of staff are not only open to innovation but live it as they are well aware of its importance. In the meantime, innovation has become part of the guiding principle of our company: “We are innovative. We aim to recognise trends early and translate them into new products with courage and determination. Our unique and creative advertising makes us distinct. We maintain and increase the attractiveness of our product range through novelties. We embrace changes in the service sector and in the area of printing technology and see opportunities in these.” We always want to be ahead of our competition by a paper length.
2. You were the first paper merchant to take a gamble on white natural papers as well as on brown and grey recycled paperboard for graphical and primary packaging applications. It was Fischer Papier who either sought out these qualities or played a big part in developing them. How do you convince your suppliers of your ideas that for many seem far-fetched? Do you surround yourself by like-minded partners in the industry?
Probably the most difficult task is to enthuse suppliers about new ideas and products, particularly in an environment where standardisation and production efficiency is predominant. It is a big challenge.
From experience, smaller mills are more open to innovation. Admittedly, our track record over the last 15 years is helpful as a lot of the things that we started led to success and were copied later on. Each trend starts small, i.e. generates small quantities at first.
As a second step, we aim to find paper merchants in Europe who want to market the product so that we can increase quantities for efficient production.
3. You view „creativity as a permanent task” to maintain your position in a price-driven market. How do you put this philosophy into practice within your company? Has it born any fruit?
There is no philosophy as such. The guiding principle of our company defines the bigger picture. We try to be innovative. At the moment we are working on eight new products. I don’t want to give too much away but can confirm that we have devoted our efforts to the theme of opacity in an attempt to develop the world’s most opaque natural paper. Thanks to collaboration with selected suppliers surprisingly we’ve managed to achieve this rather simply.
On the other hand we are seeing a trend towards more haptic products, i.e. the tactile feel. The market is looking for papers that are rough and matt. You could say matt is the new gloss. We are working on an incredibly rough paper surface that guarantees good printing results. The first printing tests were very promising.
4. The times ahead for the paperboard trade will not be easy. What are currently the biggest challenges for you and how do you envisage tackling them? How do you see the industry in 2040 or 2050 in Switzerland and Europe respectively?
It is impossible to hazard a guess for the years 2040 and 2050. Many of our customers wonder what the coming year or even the next few months will look like. It is clear, however, that both Switzerland and Europe will experience a further concentration in the printing industry. A few years ago we had 1,500 printers in Switzerland. Today there are perhaps 800 left, the majority of which represent mostly small printing companies.
In Switzerland the printing and paper market will never grow again. Our prognosis is that over the coming years there will be a further decline in demand of between 3 and 5 % per year. We have no idea when we will hit rock bottom. There will be a focus on large printing centres that can work on an industrial scale and are therefore in need of logistics, recycling and other services. We are currently expanding these service areas and are looking at the customer holistically.
We are also thinking about how the packaging market might function in the future and what role we will play in it. Here too, we are treading new paths and are contemplating the areas of production and packaging as a whole. In doing so, we not only focus on products but particularly on entire packaging solutions and affiliated services. For example, we acquired a company called Directpack in Olten to reinforce these areas.
Over the past years we established a foothold in visual communications (IGEPA Adoc) and envisage further consolidation in this sector. In addition to the associated media we also represent or sell digital printing machines, roll cutters and flat bed plotters in the ink jet segment together with cutting and milling equipment. Naturally, this comes with a team of technicians and service professionals.