The nearly 120-year-old company has become a master of reinvention as a growing force in the dynamic and diverse branded merchandise business.
Written by Joe O’Donnell
It never ceases to amaze Paul Friedman, Jr. when he stops to think about it.
“Our grandfather came over from Poland when he was 14. Can you imagine that? His parents put him on a boat because they wanted him to have a better life. He ended up walking the streets of New York and two ladies gave him a place to live and taught him English. They were school teachers,” Friedman says. “Only in America.”
City Paper Company, the Friedmans’ family business, is a similar “only in America” story of hard work, success, failures, reinventions, the whole sweep of business in the 20th and 21st century captured in the saga of Birmingham’s City Paper Company.
City Paper was founded in 1897 when Birmingham was a new town of less than 75,000 people. By that time Jacob Friedman, from Poland via New York City, had opened a men’s store in his adopted hometown. By the 1920s, he had sold the men’s clothing store and bought into City Paper Company, by 1923 owning the entire company. Through the Depression and war years, City Paper sunk deeply into debt. Jacob’s son, Paul Friedman Sr., came home from the armed services and college to take over the company. He tells the story in a company history (Paul, Sr. passed away in 2009 having proudly never really retired.)
“Since Dad had been ill for several years and had been unable to go to the business at all, it had floundered, and after the funeral I was presented with a very frank and unpleasant set of facts by my Dad’s close friend and attorney. He said that there was no way, that at my age, I could pull the business out as it was hopelessly in debt and that an 18-year-old could never make it run. His suggestion was to get what I could out of the business and file bankruptcy. Even though I was then only 18, I told this very close friend of my father that I had no intention of letting the very first business decision of my young life be one to bankrupt, and that if that was his frank and only suggestion, then he was fired as City Paper Co.’s and my attorney as of that moment.” —Paul Friedman, Sr.
“City Paper has to be one of the oldest businesses in Birmingham and has endured many ups and downs from World Wars to depressions and all kinds of stuff we went through,” Paul Jr. says. “When Paul Sr. took the business over in the 1940s, both his accountant and his lawyer told him to bankrupt. He went down to First National Bank at the time and asked for more time. He was $300,000 in debt in the 1940s. He told the judge he needed five years and he would pay every creditor back, and he did it in three years. Mark and I and my sister were never allowed to be lazy. When summertime hit, when everyone else was at the pool, we were working here.
“The business has changed, but the name has not. It has really been an evolution in which City Paper has survived and thrived,” he continues. “City Paper Company opened its doors 119 years ago with the belief that we should build lasting profitable relationships with customers through the best service, best products and the best value prices.”
Another Century for Another Generation
Brad Friedman, Mark’s son and vice president of sales, takes up the story from there. He, in collaboration with Jeff Grippando, vice president of promotional marketing, oversees the City Paper sales and internal operations teams, along with managing accounts of his own.
“As the evolution of the business has moved from retail packaging, you have to continue to stay ahead of the curve to make sure we are here another century, for another generation,” Brad says.
“Three years ago, I saw the volume in the promotional marketing space. I knew that to have any kind of real growth, we would have to find a way to get into that business. Retail packaging has been great for 30 years, but it is a small pie with a lot of people eating it. To get to the next level, I knew we would have to make some changes But you have to make sure you are 100 percent committed and have 100 percent of the right people in place. My greatest sales accomplishment was to get Jeff Grippando and Stephanie Friedman, vice president of marketing (who is also my wife) to come here from a large company to City Paper,” Brad says.
“Brad had the authority and autonomy to move forward, and he offered us the opportunity to be here,” Grippando says.
“Creating the best promotional product company takes cultural identity and the freedom to be creative. Many companies do it very, very well. We loved the idea of creating a boutique firm with the ability to be personal and hands on,” says Stephanie.
The reinvention of City Paper had begun. And the move into creating branded merchandise for clients has paid off. From 2013 to 2015, the company is up 329 percent in promotional products sales. This year alone they are up 45.2 percent in promotional products sales over last year.
Those impressive numbers are backed up by a lot of hard work and struggle.
“When you change the face of your business, you have to go out and prove it to the clients. We had to educate our customers not to just look at our name, because we are now so much more than a paper company. If it were easy it would happen overnight and everybody would be doing it,” Brad says.
Grippando says diversifying the business needed to be done quickly. “It was great to get an outside perspective. I started looking at all of the accounts, and 90 percent were in vertical retail markets. We needed to expand into areas such as healthcare and financial services, and that required different products. We had to revamp the troops who were focused on selling retail and bring in individuals committed to learning a new business and a new industry,” Grippando says.
“It was a major undertaking. We knew that if we stuck with it, we were on the road to really making it happen. And we could work with some of the biggest companies in the country,” says Paul.
Diverse offerings and customer “stickiness” are key according to marketing director Stephanie Friedman. From building internal company Internet stores for customers to creating great art that elevates a client’s profile, City Paper is all about being immersed in a customer’s brand.
“The more we sell to a customer, the stickier we are with that client. Some of our best prospects are within our own customer base. So many of those customers have been great prospects for new product lines,” Stephanie says.
“We lead with creativity each and every time. We immerse ourselves into customer’s brand, their culture, the way they strategically think. We are never afraid of creativity. If we can dream it, we can brand it. The sky’s the limit.”
According to Stephanie, what separates City Paper from competitors is the company’s family orientation. “Customers are welcomed into the family. You can’t put a price tag on having that kind of a relationship. It is truly what you need to get the best return on investments. People need guidance.
“One of the biggest challenges I had is the number of people who have told me to change the name of the company. And so we sat down two years ago and said that is not happening. But how can we make sure we are educating the community, including right here in the city of Birmingham, about what we do? We have great packaging customers here, but we did not have the foothold we should have had in branded merchandising in this market,” she says.
Enter Rick Roth, who this year merged his locally oriented promotional company with City Paper this year.
“We have reinvented ourselves on a regular basis,” Brad says.
Product safety is also a huge component of what City Paper brings to customers. They put a strong emphasis on product safety and quality certified suppliers. “Customers know we are taking that extra level of concern to make sure we are doing the right thing. The second a product is in the hands of a user or child everyone can rest free because we take the time to do it right,” Stephanie says. “Order off the internet and you have no idea what you are going to get.”
Expanding market presence is key for City Paper. Today the company is active from Oklahoma and Texas across the South to North Carolina, but the business continues to expand, and the brand names associated with City Paper continue to grow more impressive from Benefit Cosmetics to Carnival Cruise Lines to Boeing.