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ES Wigg and Son celebrate 165 years of family owned business

Innovation

ES Wigg & Son have declared a day off this Friday to sit down for a company-wide lunch. It's a low-key celebration that doesn't betray the magnitude of the achievement it marks: 165 years trading as a family-owned manufacturer.

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Edgar Smith Wigg started the business in 1849, selling books and homeopathic medicine imported from his home, the borderlands of Scotland and England. The business, Australia's 21st oldest, continues Wigg's legacy all these years later as the nation's premiere envelope manufacturer.

Hugh Davidson, ES Wigg and Son's Director of Sales and Marketing – and Wigg's great, great grandson, says that while that history instils a sense of tradition, it doesn't stifle them.

“What we look at is that ES Wigg didn't start making envelopes. He started with homeopathic medicines. So you can't see any correlation between envelopes and that,” Hugh says.

Their products range from standard envelopes found at the stationery shops to what he calls the “weird and wonderful things”, such as charity mailers from the Salvation Army and Smith Family, Express Post envelopes for Australia Post and direct mail outs for people like American Express, Foxtel and Reader's Digest.

When Edgar Smith first arrived in South Australia, he didn't intend to stay. What was meant to be a short stop on the way to Victoria turned in to settlement when, tragically, his wife fell ill and died on the journey.

“When he got here there were just dirt roads and limited infrastructure. Everything he would sell he would have to import from the homeland.”

In 1871, Edgar's son Edward married Janet Davidson. Janet's brother, William Davidson, moved to Australia from England to work in the business. William would eventually marry Edgar's daughter, Mary in 1885.

William bought and installed the company's first envelope printing machine in 1901, shortly after Edgar died.

Around this time they purchased their offices near the historic Beehive Corner in the Adelaide CBD, as well as the property at Thebarton where the entire manufacturing operation continues to this day. It was South Australia's first 'saw-tooth' roof.

Longevity is certainly a theme at ES Wigg & Son. Most of their major customers have been with them for decades, a loyal base that they maintain and nurture – while also considering them a market for future endeavours.

“Australia Post, Reader's Digest, Salvation Army. Those have been customers of ours for 40 years. In this day and age, in our market, having someone for two years is probably the average. It's such a cutthroat market,” Hugh explains.

“Kodak is another one. Photographic packaging has obviously diminished with digital coming along, but they've been a customer for 40 years as well. We'll utilise that base in some way in the future.”

Since Edgar Smith Wigg passed away, management of the company has been passed down through multiple generations of Davidsons. Hugh says there are pressures that come from running a family business – but that it's mostly positive.

“You've got a unique situation,” says Hugh, “where you've got my father, Chairman of the Board, in one office and my brother, who's Managing Director, and myself in marketing in offices next to each other.

“There are the usual things that come with owning a business, the usual disagreements. But you've got a unique bond as well, being family.”

The Davidsons are facing up to a tough time for the envelope business. The rise of digital media and much talked about decline of Australia Post's letter section is putting pressure on the company.

Recent comments by Australia Post's Chief Executive Ahmed Fahour – that the profitable parcel section might be privatised and the letter service left to decline haven't helped either.

“We feel like Australia Post are deserting their customers and clients. We know it's a mature market, but we don't really want people who are integral to that market talking it down.

“We know it's going to decline, but it's going to be a natural decline. We still think that in five years time people will be buying an envelope. We'll be making less of them though, in a smaller way.”

So, while those comments didn't thrill the Davidsons, they have reinforced the need to diversify in to other markets to keep their sales up.

ES Wigg recently signed up with massive multi-national Pitney Bowes to distribute their office products. It's one way the company is looking to diversify while using the expertise gained in the envelope industry.

“It's all office equipment. There are natural synergies with print and paper,” Hugh says, “so we're using our existing sales force to sell different products in to the same type of markets.”

From importing homeopathy products to printing times tables and cook books to making envelopes and distributing office technology, ES Wigg and Son has made a tradition of bucking tradition, and not to the business' detriment.

“The big question mark is what we'll be handing down to the next generation,” says Hugh.

“What we plan to be doing by the time the next generation come on board – it might be making cornflakes! We've got no idea, but we'd still like to be doing something, to be making something.”

Whatever ES Wigg & Son decide to turn their hand to, it's sure to be weird and wonderful.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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