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Cumbria firm credits cultural transformation to recent success

Since its humble 19th century beginnings, Burneside paper manufacturer James Cropper has continued to change and evolve to meet consumer and industrial demands. Books and envelopes played a key role in its early success, but a focus on innovation, diversifying its product range and investing in ‘cutting edge’ technologies and techniques have ensured continuous growth amidst the gradual decline of UK paper manufacturing.

Located on the River Kent near Kendal in South Cumbria, great products and a reputation for maintaining strong relationships is evident throughout James Cropper’s history. During the 2000s, however, amidst an increasingly competitive global marketplace, limited internal and external communication and a lack of PR activity was beginning to harm the business. Group HR Director, David Nicholson, tells Nigel Wright how, in the last decade, James Cropper has released untapped ambition and potential by improving employee engagement while learning to better communicate its proposition.

Joining as HR Manager in 2009, according to David, during his first few years at James Cropper it became clear that an over-reliance on established customer relationships was a problem. Opportunities were being missed and a key issue was that the business didn’t do enough to promote itself externally. This changed in 2012, however, when a restructure and new leadership team triggered a transformation programme.

New CEO, Phil Wild, understood the challenges James Cropper faced and launched a strategy focused on dual investment in Paper and Technical Fibre Products – the company’s two core divisions. People development was a critical part of the transformation programme. As Head of HR, David introduced external consultants to help develop leadership skills. Training commercial skills was also a priority to boost sales, market development and marketability via social media and getting closer to existing and potential customers at events and exhibitions. 

The current senior leadership team which have been in place since 2015 are now completely focused on raising the profile of the brand. David – who became Group HR Director in 2015 – and other senior leaders regularly participate in external communications activities, including via social media, as well as appearing at events and on TV and radio to talk about the business:  “A few years ago, our brand building activities were limited," he says. "Now we often appear on TV including the BBC, ITV and Sky as well as overseas TV channels, and we’re very active across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. It’s had a positive effect in many ways.”


James Copper certainly has lots to talk about. Another key aspect of the company’s transformation programme was establishing a new technology and innovation directorate, focused on finding ways to diversify the business. A small group of employees were selected to look at new products and markets, M&A, partnerships and joint ventures. The company’s newest division, Colourform, was a direct product of this venture. Innovation also became one of seven “leadership competencies” at James Cropper, with “continuous improvement” now included in all job profiles at the business.

Several initiatives have since been launched which have put the business “on the map.” For example, James Cropper is now one of only two companies in the UK that offer a coffee cup recycling service. Through its reclaimed fibre facility, opened by The Queen in 2013, the business has partnered with restaurant brands to help them reduce waste. Coffee cups are collected in Selfridges, Costa, Starbucks and McDonalds’ restaurants and sent to Burneside, where plastic is stripped from the inside of each cup so that the paper material can be recycled.  Selfridges’ paper bags are one outcome of this process – David says this is “closed loop recycling” at its best:

“It’s a fantastic story and a worthy cause, which also gives us a technological advantage over other organisations. We currently process around 1.5 tonnes of material per hour, which equates to 10 million paper cups per week. Crucially, the quality of the paper is indistinguishable from paper products made from virgin pulp, making it a popular choice amongst brands and retailers seeking high standards of sustainability. 

Resulting from this, James Cropper now boasts an enviable list of high profile customers. As well as being the sole provider of paper packaging to Swarovski, the business’s “Tailor Made” reclaimed fibre and post-consumer waste solutions are also utilised by Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Mulberry, Calvin Klein and Chanel. Its achievements in this area were recently recognised at the 2018 Packaging News Awards, where James Cropper won Luxury Packaging Supplier of the year.

A new James Cropper division called Colourform™,  launched in 2017, also uses pulp from the recycling process. Colourform™ combines the business's expertise in colour and paper to create plastic-free packaging made from 100% renewable natural wood fibre. Rather than producing flat sheets and rolls of paper, technology at James Cropper’s world-class Burneside plant enables the business to mould shapes with a high-quality finish in any colour. While other companies offer a similar process, James Copper’s colour expertise and huge colour range give it a unique advantage over competitors. 

"It’s perfect timing", says David, as lots of businesses are seeking alternatives to single-use plastics: “We’re absolutely in the right area with the right technology. There’s tremendous attention on what we’re doing here and it’s generated  lots of interest in our overall proposition. Our message to potential customers is instead of using plastic packaging inserts, invest in Colourform™.  It could be a smartphone box or a range of cosmetics or perfumes – our technology produces moulded fibre trays which can be recycled along with other paper packaging.”


In addition to developing “brand building” skills and enhancing commercial expertise across the organisation, employee engagement has become a big factor in James Cropper’s recent growth and success. The HR team has introduced lots of initiatives during the last 10 years which have led to better employee relations. A 2013 employee survey was the catalyst for much of the change and improvements made. Since then, employee communication has increased and forms a regular part of HR’s activities, as he explains:

 “HR plays a vital role in communicating change and strategy. But it’s important to ensure a two-way process so that employees get a chance to take part in discussions and give their views on what’s going on. The employee survey is a fantastic vehicle for finding out what people think. There’s a negative perception that it only reveals people’s views and feelings in a narrow moment in time. Even if that is the case, you still get lots of value from snapshot perspectives. There are always surprises, but it often helps confirm what you thought anyway.”

Some of the outcomes of the internal communications process include the business working more closely with Trade Unions; new and improved bonus schemes, an annual employee award ceremony, investment in training and career development, phased retirement programmes and a more joined-up and “collaborative” leadership team.

A combination of brand building and employee engagement has had a positive effect on recruitment, according to David. Despite a tight market, he says James Cropper’s heightened employer brand is helping the business hire top talent. A recent campaign for a Global Sales Director, for example, received 130 applicants – an “unthinkable number 8 years ago.”

Furthermore, James Cropper's Technical Fibre Products division, which manufactures leading-edge fibres for hi-tech fire protection, thermal insulation and fuel cell applications, now employs several PhD qualified people. The business recruits PhD graduates from various universities including Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Newcastle, York, Lancaster and Glasgow keen to continue their research work in the company’s laboratories. “We’re on people’s radar far more than we used to be,” says David. “For me, this symbolises the journey we’ve been on.”

The business has increased apprenticeship opportunities too and enjoys a healthy balance of bringing new people into the organisation versus developing younger employees and helping them move up the ranks. Thirty-three apprentices – a mixture of new and existing employees – now work at James Cropper within admin, IT, accountancy, engineering and papermaking. It’s a diverse range, David says, and again compared to eight years ago when fewer than six apprentices were employed at the business, it signals positive progress is being made.

David confirmed James Cropper has added 120 people to its operations during the last six years. 560 staff are now employed at the Burneside and 40 are spread across locations in the UK, Europe, USA and China. Employees have also indicated an overall increase in positive sentiments towards the business. Those who trust, respect and feel supported by management, for example, has risen by 30% in four years.

James Cropper has come a long way since Phil Wild’s appointment, says David. Looking ahead, he noted his excitement for HR to continue supporting the organisation on its transformation journey:

“People no longer perceive James Cropper as a ‘paper mill out in the sticks,’ but rather an ambitious business and an interesting place to work, located in a great part of the world. There’s still a lot we can achieve, though, and HR can play a massive part in helping James Cropper build on its recent success.  I want to be in a position where this department is winning on all fronts in terms of facilitating our growth. My message is  clear: as the business moves forward, we must always consider the needs of our people first.”

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