Business

Tacoma waterproof paper maker celebrates 100 years, offers free samples

Rite in the Rain employee Sofia Gonzalez sorts notebooks after they were assembled by the spiral binding machine at the company plant in Tacoma last month.
Rite in the Rain employee Sofia Gonzalez sorts notebooks after they were assembled by the spiral binding machine at the company plant in Tacoma last month. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Waterproof paper.

Yes, there really is such a thing. It’s manufactured here by the J.L. Darling Co., which last week celebrated 100 years in business.

The brand, Rite in the Rain, was originally aimed at the timber industry and is now known by naturalists, the military, first responders, mountaineers, surveyors, geologists, biologists and just about anyone else who might ever need to write in wet conditions.

“It trickles into the most specific industries,” said Jim Kopriva, Rite in the Rain product and media manager, during a recent tour. “Instead of branding deeper into these niches, we’ve been presenting the product to a more general audience,” Kopriva said.

A FEW RELATED FACTS

▪  Founded as a family business in 1916 in Tacoma, subsequent family owners of J.L. Darling in 2013 agreed to sell a 60 percent share of the business to the investment group CID Capital, which also counts the audio-tech firm Westone within its portfolio. The price of the sale has not been publicly released.

▪  Of the 55 employees at J.L. Darling, 17 have been employed by the company for more than a decade.

▪  Sales to military clients amount to about one-third of the company’s annual receipts.

▪  The process that coats paper is patented and proprietary, but is described as a “water-based coating process that involves high-temperature application of an acrylic solution that repels water.”

▪  Products range from a book-bound Centennial notebook to small notebooks fit for a shirt pocket. The company also sells pens that write either upside-down, underwater, or both; index cards; reams of waterproof copy paper; and a number of notebooks and record books especially designed with grids where the user can record the temperature of milk or the amount of pesticide applied to a crop, for instance, or the time when a homicide was first reported.

▪  The most popular product sold is the “3x5 top spiral” notebook, with a suggested retail price of $3.95. A ream of standard copy paper will run about $33. The product with the longest shelf life may be the “animal treatment record book,” which typically lasts six years and costs $4.

▪  Rite in the Rain paper is recyclable.

WHAT IT MEANS TO TACOMA

For Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, the story of 100 years at J.L. Darling can be instructive to potential board clients.

“You can be successful here. There’s something in the water that allows companies to be successful,” Kendall said. “It’s a very positive image to have.”

“Everybody has to change over time,” he said. “You might be successful for a while, but if you’re not willing to change, you’ll go out of business.”

For Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce Chamber, the presence of century-old businesses can also affect the image of a community.

“It shows we have strong roots,” he said. “I think it speaks to our workforce and entrepreneurs.”

As with Kendall, Pierson recognizes the need for change and for growth if a company is going to survive.

“You can’t be around for 100 years and not change who you are or what you do,” he said. “To compete well, it goes to innovation. If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill. You can build on success, but you can’t sit on success. They’ve continued to rethink how to reach market segments.”

And that’s right where Rite in the Rain finds itself as the second century dawns.

BIRDS TO CRUSTACEANS

Testimonials are legion from workers who work in the rain, but still Kopriva said there are obstacles to growth. There’s the cost, which considerably exceeds the cost of paper that raindrops would turn to mush.

To which he counters, “If your notes are worth writing down, they’re worth protecting.”

Then there’s the problem of visibility in the general market. “People don’t know this exists,” Kopriva said.

So the future, he said, depends on product development. The current pipeline, Kopriva said, includes a birding journal and a fishing logbook that includes a grid with space for notes concerning water temperature, the time when sunrise was due and the number and types of fish caught.

As marketing head, he said part of his job is “to convince the average user that they need durable, water-resistance paper.”

“We have a strong foothold with geologists and botanists,” he said, “but that success doesn’t ripple outside those communities.”

His goal, he said, is “to establish that same sense of fun and passion with a general audience. I trust the ripple.”

Much of the company’s success, he said, comes from an ability to listen to customers.

“We don’t have an in-house farmer or an in-house crustacean biologist,” he said. “We listen to customers.”

And over 100 years, the company has yet to get too big for its britches.

“It’s a small factory in Tacoma, Washington,” Kopriva said.

“It does something special.”

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535

For a free sample, or to purchase products

▪  For a free sample notebook, readers can send a request via email to social@riteintherain.com. “Give it a try,” Jim Kopriva, Rite in the Rain product and media manager, said. “Don’t be afraid to put it through its paces. Write on it. Put it in the laundry.”

▪ You can find notebooks and other Rite in the Rain products at Home Depot, Office Depot, Tacoma Screw, the University of Washington Bookstore, REI, Staples Canada and, most recently added, at True Value stores, among other locations.

▪ And don’t be surprised to see “first party” sales on Amazon in the near future, with fulfillment offered through the company itself.

▪ You can also shop at the company website: riteintherain.com

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