Johnson Paper founder:
Frank Johnson.


From the Chicago Tribune (Tribune photo by José M. Osorio) January 27, 2003:

Custom paper shifts out of the margins
by Lorene Yue, Tribune staff reporter

Greg Johnson has seen this type of situation before.

A customer came to his company, Johnson Paper LP, with an unusual request: The customer wanted paper made from cactus to complete a print job for a cruise line. It could have been a particularly prickly request, but Johnson knew of a paper mill willing to make the paper.

It may have been more difficult to find a solution several years ago, but a heightened awareness about specialty papers has spurred on supplies.

The widespread availability of the papers, an increasing number of homes with laser printers and graphic design software, plus the ease of doing business over the Internet is spawning a cottage industry in the handmade invitation and announcements business.

"As more and more specialty papers become available, people become more and more inspired to try it themselves," said Andrea Liss, owner and designer of Hannah Handmade Cards in Evanston.

The increased supply from specialty mills is a contradiction to what is taking place among the commercial mills. Those larger operations, which primarily supply office paper, are consolidating under tough economic conditions. Meanwhile, smaller mills are steeping in with specialty papers.

Jim York, co-owner of Paper Source in Chicago, said the growing number of people making invitations and announcements has helped his company grow to nine stores and an e-commerce site in the past six years.

"This industry is growing tremendously," York said. "It is definitely the advent of home companies and home printing. Anyone who wants to make invitations is coming to us."

They are also stopping in to national retailers such as Michaels Stores, Inc., which has expanded it paper-crafting department by 25 percent every year for the last five years.

"Laser printers have made it easy to be successful in the printing arena," said Brenda Lugannani, a vice president at Michaels.

"It costs little to begin - just paper, a computer and a printer - and the results are beautiful and profitable," she said.

At Johnson Paper Co. in Chicago there has been a 15 percent spike in the number of home based invitation firms coming to the company for supplies.

"We've seen a dozen new people since last year," Johnson said.

They come looking for the unique and offbeat: papers that change color at the touch, that glow in the dark or look and feel like rubber.

As the third generation running Johnson Paper, Johnson knows there is always someone looking for something unusual, and the requests are becoming more frequent.

The Four Seasons hotel used a thin sheet of maple veneer for invitations to a reception, and the San Francisco 49ers football team came looking for paper that was dimpled like a golf ball for invitations to a golf outing.

"I also know of a mill in Wisconsin that will make paper out of cheese byproducts," Johnson said.

Alison Papanikos, co-owner of Paragraphics Custom Design & Calligraphy in Chicago, started making invitations and announcements in 1993. Her company, she says, was among a few companies offering the same services.

Now her competition is not only other similar businesses, but also do-it-yourselfers who can readily get supplies at craft retailers like Wal-Mart and Michaels.

"I advertise in Wedding Bells magazine and now there are a lot of new ads in there," Papanikos said. "There are definitely a lot more people advertising that they do handmade invitations, and it is definitely a lot easier for people to get into the business."

Debra Baum, who founded Urbane Invitations of Chicago in 1998, agreed at the ease of starting up a handmade invitation firm.

"It's gotten a lot more competitive in the past year," Baum said. "But business has grown every year."

Baum deals with higher-end invites that average $20 each, so the growing number of do-it-yourselfers hasn't eroded her profits.

Instead, they have made it easier to get supplies and create interest in her products.

"Business is really slow just before the holidays," Baum said. "But after the holiday are over and everyone gets engaged, it gets super busy."


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