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Who wants to sell office paper?
Jim Thompson has frequently stated that keeping the invoice printer spinning should be a high priority for most paper company staff (consistent always with issues such as safety and compliance with the law).

Having orders from customers to whom you can issue invoices is of course a pre-requisite for printing them. A recent experience, and another one 30 years ago, has made me wonder how many North American paper companies are missing the boat (actually several ships).

An acquaintance who is working in Africa, in a field unrelated to the paper industry, asked me where a local associate of his in Djibouti could buy 80 gsm office paper, A4 sheets, in 100 ton quantities. Apparently the potential buyer has some trouble communicating. He speaks no English.

My friend assumed that because I have worked in the industry for 50 years, I would know something about paper sales. Being an engineer working on production and environmental control systems, I have never sold a sheet of paper in my life, and any contact I have had with sales staff would have been chance social contacts at a conference.

I emailed several office paper manufacturers, intending to put them in contact with the potential buyer. I had no interest in becoming involved at all, in collecting a commission or whatever.

Out of three North American suppliers I emailed, the only reply was

"Please pass this info on to your neighbor who is interested in Domtar paper for export to Africa. We are presently not seeking any new trading partners for this region at this time. Our production schedule is full. Thank you for the interest in Domtar for export to Africa"

For an industry suffering from declining demand, this is an astonishing reply.

I also tried one continental European papermaker and the two Scandinavian giants. One of the latter came back within half an hour with the contact for his agent in Djibouti. The other two have still not replied.

I am a completely naïve paper "buyer", as is the real buyer in Africa. I assume that if I got on the phone and chased around the paper companies and merchant's organisations, I could have found someone more enthusiastic about selling, but a customer should not have to do that.

In the 1970's when I was working in paper mills in France, a purchasing agent, who was buying over 100,000 tons/year of market pulp, complained about poor service from the agents selling Canadian pulp in France. He had tried to contact the pulp manufacturers, but was always told to deal only with the agents. He related that this experience made him prefer Scandinavian pulp, although of course technical specifications and/or price led to his buying both Canadian and Scandinavian pulps.

This problem occurred long before the Internet became available for business use. At the time, even telephoning Canada from France required booking a call through the operator a few hours ahead, so chasing people down was very cumbersome. He asked me to try to get him in contact with someone at the major Canadian pulp suppliers with whom he could discuss his complaints.

Everyone I knew in the industry was in production or engineering departments. Although I spoke with several, including mill managers, I was always redirected to sales people who insisted that I talk with the same agents with whom the French customer was unhappy. I gave up in frustration at the apparent lack of interest in these pulp manufacturers in investigating customer complaints.

In marked contrast to the above tales of woe, when I google "A4 copy paper container lots" a host of Asian vendors pop up. I emailed a couple with my enquiry for Africa and received responses within the hour.

Googling "A4 copy paper" returns a host of companies selling in quantities usually bought by offices, and the same Asian suppliers selling in container size lots. Our own giants like Domtar and International Paper are not visible.

It seems that while we bemoan the decline in the market for office paper due to the Internet, North American paper marketers are failing to use it, and are being by-passed by the Chinese and other Asian salesmen.

Intuitively, I tend to have more confidence in the quality of paper offered by Domtar, IP, and so forth, than in paper from an unknown Chinese supplier, but given the large number of top quality paper machines sold by Metso and other western companies in Asia, the paper quality is probably fine.

The kind of company that has to use Google to find out who makes copy paper is likely to be a relatively small purchaser, but even my African friend buying a few hundred tons/year should not be ignored. At the least, his naïve, rather simplistic, enquiry should merit a phone call to assess whether he is a realistic prospect.

All this makes me think of my student days in in the 1960s in the UK working for a former world leader in manufacturing specialised machinery, where the sales staff looked on enquiries from unknown companies as rather beneath their dignify, and preferred to deal with "established" customers. That company closed its doors around 1980.

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