Family pride and corporate clout at Cumbrian paper manufacturer James Cropper

Phil Wild and Mark Cropper of James Cropper paper manufacturers

When the chairman of Cumbrian paper manufacturer James Cropper wanted a progressive CEO for the 170-year-old firm, he found one in Phil Wild. Four years on, their combination of family pride and corporate clout has seen the company thrive

Mark Cropper [above, right] My great-great-great grandfather founded James Cropper in 1845 when he bought the paper mill in Burneside, Cumbria. Today it’s the UK’s last independent paper mill and the source of an amazing variety of products, from the red paper used in the Royal British Legion’s poppies to carbon fibre materials in composite aircraft. We even have paper in space, most recently in the Jason-3 observation satellite. I joined as non-executive director in 2006, becoming chairman four years later. By then the business needed to embrace the future in a bolder manner. What needed to change wasn’t the products, but the culture. And the best way to begin this process was by bringing in a new CEO who had the soft skills needed. Somebody such as Phil…

Phil Wild [above, left] When I was offered the James Cropper job in 2012, I’d been working for US multinational 3M for 22 years. Going from a $36bn (£29bn) organisation to one in Cumbria with an £80m-plus turnover took some thinking about… But if you’re going to join an organisation, you need to have confidence you’ll add value, that the chemistry is right and there’s a sense of pride. When I visited them, all of those things played through.

Mark Cropper We knew quickly Phil was right during the interview, because we started selling to him! Within his first month, he’d gone into the IT department and got them to default the meeting time on the company calendar from an hour to 30 minutes. He’d seen people were spending too much time in meetings and halved the time. We also went on a two-week trip to the US. Every day during breakfast, Phil would bring out his notepad and say, ‘Right! What’s our agenda for today’s meetings?’

Phil Wild In larger organisations, you tend to use TLAs [three-letter acronyms]. But speaking plain English in a family organisation will take you a long way. It was fundamental to communicate in non-jargon with every person here.

Mark Cropper This business of good communication is something I’ve learnt from Phil. Now, if I have a thought about the organisation, I make sure Phil’s in that line of communication.

Phil Wild My personality style is [having] the business acumen, while Mark has a creative ability, passion and vision for the brand. He led a rebranding exercise but if I did that, it wouldn’t have the same depth and understanding of what the company stands for. But we share the same values.

Mark Cropper In 1895, our founder said, ‘Nothing seems to open itself out to so many new uses as paper’. [In an era of paperless offices] we need to keep seeking those uses. One of the growth areas [in the paper industry] is around packaging, which we’ve doubled in the last three years. A big trend is luxury packaging, which is why we do Selfridges’ shopping bags and boxes for Chivas whisky.

Phil Wild We’ve also had more competition from the Far East in the past four years, which is why we have established ourselves in China, having local people sell local products.

Mark Cropper Another big event in our recent history was our £5m reclaimed fibre facility, which the Queen opened in 2013. It processes waste from cup production equating to 10 million paper coffee cups a week, converting 90 per cent of this into fibre for paper production and repurposing the other 10 per cent, which is plastic, into objects such as garden furniture… We’re very much still a papermaker, but not as people imagine it.

Phil Wild Last December, Storm Desmond hit. We had three months of rainfall in 48 hours. We had issues here affecting low-level areas and our power source. After the flood, there was lots of mess [it’s estimated the storm cost a missed week in production and £770,000]. Our employees cleaned everything up throughout the Christmas break.

Mark Cropper Did the crisis bring out the best in our relationship? Definitely. Phil led the recovery and it was systematic. People say to him, ‘It’s unbelievable what you’re changing!’, assuming I’d have my foot on the brake. But no: we’ve got our foot on the accelerator, and we’re mindful we don’t break the best of what we’ve got. We even go running together on business trips. Do we run and talk? No, we go too fast for that. We’ve got our foot on the accelerator, remember?

James Cropper vital stats

Founded 1845

Turnover £87.9m

Staff 518

Location Kendal, Cumbria

Did you know? Products featuring James Cropper paper/fabrics include parliamentary almanac Hansard, frame mounts in the Tate gallery and commercial planes. The firm’s technical fibre products are used as part of a lower-cost manufacturing system for aircraft.

To find out more about James Cropper, visit


About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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