Sinclairs turning over the pages of history

A BUSINESS which has passed through six generations of a family is celebrating its 175th anniversary in the paper products industry.

Otley-based Sinclairs – which produces the Silvine notebooks known by generations of schoolchildren – is currently run by the son-in-law of Michael Sinclair, Andrew Howard. And keeping the family succession going is his son, Paul Howard, who is also in the business as a director.

Chairman and managing director Andrew Howard said: “We’re one of the oldest businesses in Otley and the only large-scale stationery manufacturer left here in the UK. The reason we’re still in business after all these years is that our service is great, and our products are top quality. We also offer the environmental and ethical guarantees which customers now seek.”

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The firm, which makes paper stationery including notebooks, exercise books and refill pads, was founded by Otley man William Sinclair in 1837 in a workshop in Wetherby.

It is thought that Sinclairs supplied Marks & Spencer in its early days while it was still based at Leeds Market and the company supplied Woolworths in North America before it came to the UK.

Mr F W Woolworth, on one of his European tours, visited the Sinclair operation in Otley, smoking his cigar as he was shown around. When Woolworths did open in the UK, Sinclairs supplied its stationery for many years.

Within 20 years, William had moved the firm back to his roots in Otley, where he had served his apprenticeship. Then as production became more automated, and a factory was needed, in 1884 the company moved to the site in North Street where the £16m turnover company is still based today.

“In the early 20th century as things became more automated it very much became the traditional factory and after the Second World War we started to use machinery imported from Germany,” said Mr Howard.

From the early days the company exported paper products all over the world to the far-flung corners of the British Empire including India and Australia, but in contrast to many companies, Sinclairs has consolidated its market place to the UK and Ireland rather than focusing on exports.

“It is mainly because as a lot of countries became independent they bought machines and began to make the products themselves. Paper is very heavy to move around the world, so now paper is made in China and Indonesia and they export to those countries,” said Mr Howard.

Sinclairs, which employs 120 people, after taking on an extra half a dozen people this year, produces several thousand products including those which are used in educational environments and the ‘Heritage’ collection which includes the red notebooks which have made their way into most people’s stationery collections.

“Many consumers remember us for the red notebooks and exercise books with the tables on the back, which are still in demand as part of our Heritage range, but we now have many new exciting ranges which appeal to modern tastes,” said Mr Howard. The company has recently invested in £2m of new machinery to ensure it is capable of competing with imports from the Far East and the rest of Europe.

“Other companies have either thrown in the towel or moved abroad, but we are a family-run firm and we are here for the long term.

“We have a good management team and a supportive workforce who are willing to change and adapt to changing circumstances. We are grateful to the staff who work here for throwing themselves into the changes,” added Mr Howard.

“We have just been through a rebranding exercise, but we are looked upon as a good manufacturer – trusted, with good products.

“We are always looking for new markets in areas where we haven’t been in the past.

“To exist as a manufacturer in the UK, you have to look at products with added value, so we are looking at business where we can add value.”

The company’s employees along with company pensioners will celebrate the 175-year milestone at a dinner in Harrogate this month.

Mr Howard added: “It is truly a family firm as many employees are from families where several generations have worked for us, and they have all played there part in making the business successful. 175 years is a real achievement for a British manufacturing company and we are now looking forward to our bi-centenary.”

Sinclairs is owned by members of the Sinclair family.