The paper route

David Irvine waxes lyrical about family business, Caprice Paper, and why there’s still hope for the future of Australian manufacturing.

By Lynne Testoni

Sometimes it’s best to do just one thing—but do it well. That’s certainly been the philosophy of the Irvine family and their business, Caprice Paper, for more than 32 years.

CEO David Irvine has been with Caprice for most of his working life, working alongside his parents in the early years, plus various uncles and aunts, his sister, as well as his wife Kate and their two daughters, Sam and Ally.

The company specialises in manufacturing paper goods for the ‘away-from-home’ market, which includes industry and hospitality, so paper towel, toilet rolls and napkins predominantly. The majority of products are manufactured in their Victorian factory, located at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, complemented by a warehouse in Sydney.

It’s a wholesale business, with the Caprice team selling to distributors, who then supply their range of product to the end customers.

“Our client base is pretty diverse,” says Irvine. “Basically, anywhere that you class as ‘away from home’ is a potential customer. So it can include anything from healthcare to education, offices, and factories.”

 

THE HUMBLE TOWEL

Caprice started by manufacturing paper roll towels, which remains one of their main products, but the product range now also includes toilet tissue products, other types of paper towel, such as interleaved towels, all the dispensers for the products, plus paper tableware and napkins for restaurants and hotels.

“We are consistent,” says Irvine. “A case in point is the roll towels that we started with. They’re still our biggest seller, which is incredible for such a straightforward product that had been around in the market for probably 30 plus years before we started selling or making them.

“And now it’s 30 years later and the demand is still there, because they are such an easy product to use—convenient, and people can tear off as much as they want for their purpose.”

The company has a staff of 36, a compact size that makes it quite agile, with no middle management, and allows David and Kate to keep a close eye on business all the time. “Everyone answers to either myself or my wife,” says Irvine.

 

COVID BUSINESS BOOST

Caprice has thrived in the last two years, despite the pandemic, partly because the increased focus on hygiene in factories and companies generally has helped to sell more of their product.

“People and business owners had been fairly blasé about hygiene,” Irvine says. “One of the biggest problems out there was that people just weren’t washing their hands and that was spreading a lot of germs around. We saw a really strong demand for dispensers for interleaved towels and roll towels through that period. It tapered off last year, but we’d never sold so many dispensers as we did in 2020.”

COVID-19 has also helped to reinforce the importance of having goods manufactured in Australia, because local companies such as Caprice have managed to weather the supply chain issues that have plagued industry as a whole.

“Despite all the things that have gone on including, most recently, the shipping delays, it’s been a real boon for us too,” says Irvine. “As long as we’ve had enough raw material, which we have, we have been able to produce whatever we want when we want it, and not get overstocked, and keep our customers happy.”

 

LOST BUSINESS

Irvine says that it has been sad to watch many companies move to offshore manufacturing in recent years.

“Large manufacturers were still manufacturing here up until five to 10 years ago; they were still making many of their products here,” he says. “And then the retailers said, ‘Well, unless you start manufacturing in China, we won’t be buying off you.’ So, what were they to do?”

When these manufacturers did move manufacturing to China, it had a detrimental effect on Caprice Paper.

“A lot of our products were being sold into those factories,” says Irvine. “Our towel and tissue products were being sold through our distributors into many factories. Melbourne was the most manufacturing-related economy of all the cities in Australia, so it has been hit the hardest with that change.

“I think if people had been more prepared to stick things out, not throw their lot in with China, there would have been a lot more product around, but unfortunately a lot of people were forced into this cheaper mindset and much was lost.

“I would hope that people have really paused and thought about what they’ve done.”

The Irvine family is committed to staying in manufacturing, even investing in high-speed machinery for their factory. “We used to have a lot of small machines and then we invested heavily in some real state-of-the-art machinery to allow us to stay competitive with manufacturing in Australia,” says Irvine.

 

A FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY

The company has also moved to using recycled paper for many of their products, a feature that is now a significant part of the Caprice business.

Irvine also worked hard to get FSC and PEFC certification for their raw materials, which ensures that the paper they use has come from sustainable sources, such as plantation timber. It was an arduous process, but worthwhile, he says.

“It goes all the way down the line,” he explains. “Everyone involved has to be certified, from the foresters to the pulp mill, to the paper mill, then to us as a converter. So the consumer can be comfortable they’re not getting timber or pulp from timber out of a rainforest.”