Gilded Paper Route – Thornwillow Press – Brief Article – Statistical Data Included
With a little help from Montblanc, Luke Pontifell turned his passion for printing into an international business
LUKE IVES PONTIFELL had always loved paper. He took his first printing and typesetting course at the age of 15 and started his own printing business before he left high school. But in his wildest dreams, Pontifell never thought that his interest in old-fashioned printing and papermaking would take him where he is today: running an international company that manufactures fine writing paper for one of the world’s leading luxury-goods corporations.
Pontifell isn’t just about paper. His New York-based company, Thornwillow Press, also produces premium leather-bound editions that are coveted by collectors, libraries, and even museums. Thornwillow makes books the way Renaissance printers used to make them, with manual presses and handmade paper. Pontifell started the business while he was still in high school. A family friend wrote a children’s book, which Pontifell had printed and then bound with his own two hands. He hawked these editions to bookstores around New York and Massachusetts. Most said no, but a few agreed to sell the young printer’s books. Thornwillow Press was on its way.
Throughout the late 1980s, Pontifell began to attract high-profile clients; he printed luxury editions of works by Walter Cronkite and German chancellor Helmut Kohl. And with these publishing coups also came major media attention, including an appearance on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” At that time he was buying most of the fine paper that he needed in France and Italy. But then a European friend showed him samples of handmade paper from the Czech Republic. In 1991, Pontifell hopped a plane for Prague.
He wasn’t alone: Western carpetbaggers were flocking to the newly opened markets of eastern Europe, looking to buy up privatized Communist industries on the cheap. In this horde of rapacious venture capitalists and smooth-talking fund managers, the mild-mannered, bespectacled Pontifell was an anomaly.
Near Prague, Pontifell found a factory that manufactured paper of the quality he needed. There was just one problem: it wouldn’t sell him any. The Czech managers who ran the mill wanted to buy the company from the government, so they were unwilling to show any profits. “They wanted it to look like a museum,” Pontifell recalls.
So, Pontifell decided to plow some of his book earnings and personal funds into a paper-manufacturing operation. Some two hours outside of Prague he found the remains of the Cardinal Mill, a centuries-old paper mill that had been used as a warehouse since World War II. It was an empty, dilapidated shell, without any equipment or even electricity. But the mill did possess one priceless asset: a local community of master printers and papermakers who had specialized skills that had been handed down through generations.
No Czech company was willing to foot the relatively modest bill for turning the warehouse back into a working mill. Ever the entrepreneur, Pontifell immediately came up with the idea of buying it himself. “It made sense to start our own mill in what had been a paper mill for hundreds of years,” he says.
The local bureaucracy took some convincing: at that time, foreigners weren’t even allowed to own property in the Czech Republic. A few months later, however, the rules changed; today, foreigners can form Czech companies, own 100 percent of the stock, and use the company to buy land. Pontifell nonetheless decided to minimize his risk exposure by leasing the property. The revitalized Cardinal Mill began production in 1992.
About then, the German fountain-pen company Montblanc was looking to change its image from pen manufacturer to luxury-products brand. Montblanc’s first move was to expand its product line from pens to other writing products, among them fine stationery. As fate would have it, a Montblanc executive watched Pontifell’s CBS appearance. One shot just happened to show Pontifell at his desk, writing with a Montblanc pen.
So, Pontifell and Montblanc cut a deal: if Pontifell managed to get the mill up and running, Montblanc would order its writing paper from him. “They didn’t come in as a financier or a partner,” Pontifell says. “They said, `If you can set this mill up to make paper for your books, we’ll agree to buy so much paper.’ That gave us the seed to start.”
“Knowing that Luke is so passionate about his business gives us the confidence that his products will live up to our customers’ expectations,” says Fred Reffsin, the velvet-tongued CEO of Montblanc North America. “It’s very much in sync with what we stand for as a company.”
With nine years of experience under his belt, Pontifell is bullish on doing business in the Czech Republic. But he cautions U.S. entrepreneurs to educate themselves about the Czech legal system before they invest. “You can’t underestimate how complicated it is to do business over there,” he says. Czech property law presents special challenges. Because all property was nationalized under the Communists, title searching can be an agonizingly complicated affair. To avoid unpleasant surprises, he says, always hire local real-estate lawyers to guide you through the regulatory labyrinth.
A global venture was not exactly what Pontifell anticipated back in high school, when he started Thornwillow Press in his bedroom. Still, dedicated as he is to traditional craftsmanship, Pontifell is not wholly detached from modernity. Extolling the luxurious perfection of Thornwillow’s stationery, he remembers to add that it works beautifully in an inkjet printer.
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