Over the last 25 years label manufacturers serving all sectors of the market have proliferated. So, is there still a role for the trade house in today’s labelling market? Yes, says Fisher Clark, which has maintained a trade-only policy throughout its history.

‘Companies approach us to produce labels that for some reason they can’t produce themselves, usually because of their complex or specialist nature, the size of the order, short-term capacity problems or similar factors,’ general sales manager Roy Colclough explained. ‘Our customers for bespoke products range from the traditional printer who has always been part of our customer base to other
label manufacturers and people who buy and sell print. Some are quite open with their customers about who the real manufacturer is, for others the need for confidentiality is still paramount.’

Keeping its trade-house image hasn’t always been easy for Fisher Clark, which is looking forward to celebrating its 150th anniversary.

As part of the Norprint International label manufacturing operation it has had to tread a fine line between promoting and sharing the wider facilities of a large concern with a direct selling arm and at the same time convincing its customers that the integrity of their business is in safe hands.

When Fisher Clark was first taken over by Norcros and later merged with other companies to form Norprint 25 years ago, not everyone was certain it could survive as a trade-only operation. Not only has it done that, it has thrived.

The secret of continuing success, says Roy, has been its ability to adapt to a changing market and the tenacity of successive managements in seeing a continuing future for a confidential service.

But throughout its history Fisher Clark has survived through its ability to move with the times. The shape of the familiar tag, with its cut corners, owes its design to a Mr John Fisher, a tailor who settled in Boston in 1850, and finding it impossible to buy the labels were made of small rectangles of calico or buckram, folded over at two corners at one end, with the other end then folded over these for strength, and the whole secured by a metal eyelet forming the characteristic label shape of the original John Fisher patent.

Before long demand for these new labels outstripped that for suits, and Mr Fisher took George Clark, a son of a London bookbinder, into the business with him.

The early tags were used primarily for luggage and hamper labelling, and were quick to catch on. Such was the company’s success that Queen Victoria and the future Edward VII eventually became clients.

Mr Clark bought out the Fisher interest in 1876, but two years later, he died, leaving a widow and eight children – four of them sons. The eldest, George, then aged only 17, decided to carry on with their father’s business. He became the driving force that made Fisher Clark a major 20th century label manufacturer and remained actively involved in the business until his death in 1957.

The first purpose-built factory was opened in 1902, employing a lady clerk and 25 operatives. In 1921 Fisher Clark became a limited company. By 1938, and 21 extension later, the workforce had increased to 350. This site, which has been continuously developed and changes, is still one of two Norprint occupy in Boston.

Fisher Clark joined the Norcros Group in 1960, merging with Tickopress in 1968 to form the nucleus of the current labelling giant Norprint International, which has an annual turnover of £50m. Within that structure Fisher Clark now operates as an independent Strategic Business Unit, Having proved its continuing relevance.

How did Fisher Clark cope with the changing market?

‘For many years label companies were few and far between,’ explained Roy. ‘If someone wanted a tag, ticket or gummed label, they ordered it from their local printer or stationer, and he came to us. Our name never appeared and everything, stock or not, was in an anonymous brown box.’

With the advent of
self-adhesive labels, label companies sprang up everywhere during the 60s and 70s, and new ones are still being formed. Fisher Clark changed its marketing strategy accordingly. Stock products were separated from bespoke lines. Two distinctive stock ranges were developed, aimed at the print and stationery trade respectively. For the first time, Fisher Clark’s name appeared as a brand on these products, distributed primarily through paper merchants and wholesale stationers rather than direct to thousands of individual printers and stationers.

Likewise the nature of the customers for made-to-order labels has changed. There are fewer of them now but on average they place with Fisher Clark is generally at the specialist end of the label market. Some, such as forms companies, offer labels as part of a complete service to their customers. Others tap into the Fisher Clark resource as an overflow from their own factories.

‘We encourage
label manufacturers to see us as an extension of themselves. To them, that’s in effect what we are,’ Roy added.

So what makes a successful trade
label manufacturer today?

‘In a word its service,’ says Roy. ‘We are very aware that with every order we hold our customers’ reputation in our hands.’

Dealing through a third party means special vigilance has to be maintained in checking label specifications and ensuring that Fisher Clark’s customer, who may not have particular expertise in that type of labelling product or application, has asked the right questions of his client. If a label has to meet special environmental conditions, for example, or be used through specific equipment.

One area of specialisation is still the tag. Fisher Clark is by far the largest tag manufacturer in the UK. ‘We believe that if we can’t do it to a tag, it can’t be done,’ Roy commented.

Some of the tag production machines in use have been so adapted by the company’s own engineers over the years that they are faster and more versatile than anything available to buy today. And improvements are still being made.

Straightforward overprinting of tags with numbers or simple messages in one or two-colour print on stock sizes and materials is priced from the company’s published trade price list.

To individual specification Fisher Clark prints tags and tickets in up to six colours. They can have any attachments from metal eyelets, clips and strings, to elastic and rubber bands and be almost any size or shape.

Though, inevitably, much less widely used following the growth of self-adhesives, tags are still much in demand, and will be, says Fisher Clark, as long as people need labels that tie rather than stick on. The computerised tag is the most obvious modern development. New generations of recycled and synthetic materials are also always under test, including plastics with computer imprintable coatings.

Continuing investment in label production and origination technology has enabled Fisher Clark to develop in-depth expertise in another product area – the specification, design and production of computer labels, still a growth product despite the current economic climate. The company runs a number of machines dedicated to producing computer labels. Its latest Omet press offers the flexibility of using either rotary or flatbed cutters, depending on the size of the run. So does the dry-offset Esemka, which can produce very wide labels – up to 20 inches.

A Mark Andy prints up to six colours, using the flexo process, which has made such strides in print quality during the last five or six years. Once again the company’s engineers have added their own refinements to improve or add to the capabilities of the equipment.

‘The multi-layered, multi-functional computer label is often more a self-adhesive systems – integrated business form than a label in the traditional sense,’ Roy continued. ‘It carries the efficiency of a whole production or distribution system on its shoulders, and if it fails to work through the computer there can be serious repercussion for the user. That’s one reason why we get so much of this type of business. People need to have confidence in the manufacturer’s product knowledge.’

Fisher Clark can handle the largest label volumes; special laminations and patch adhesives – there is an in-house laminating plant; products requiring secure production environments; and those which need expert back-up for material and adhesive specification. Any or all of these reasons bring trade business.

The company’s ability to create innovative label constructions, both in computer products and general labelling, has been another strength. ‘We don’t just blindly go along with a customer order, if we feel there is a better, perhaps more economic, way of designing a label, we’ll say so. That approach has helped to build long-term relationship,’ Roy explained.

Within Norprint, Fisher Clark carefully guards its identity, from having separate phone lines to its own designated production area, sales, administration and marketing staff.

Maintaining the need for anonymity and confidentiality means products can be dispatched with the client’s own labels on if necessary, and samples of Fisher Clark work cannot be used to promote products and services to other companies. Likewise the identity of many customers has to remain confidential – Fisher Clark routinely carriers out work for other major label brands and manufacturers.

Looking to the future, Roy is optimistic that the Fisher Clark name will survive well into the next century.

Recent changes in Norprint International’s structure have given the trade house greater independence than it has enjoyed since Norprint was formed, and there are plans to develop its separate identity even further.

‘We intend to stay one step ahead investing in special skills for specific label markets, while maintaining our general bespoke label capabilities, for anyone selling on labels, whether they manufacture themselves or not,’ Roy stated. ‘We will be here to mark our bi-centenary.’

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