As any paleontologist can tell you, the
size of a species doesn't guarantee its survival. Dinosaurs
are extinct. The Fred Lake Rubber Stamp Co. lives on.
Its seven employees now work in a small
cinderblock building tucked away in an industrial area of
Stemmons Corridor, but the stamp company nonetheless is among
the city's oldest businesses.The eighth oldest, to be exact.
It was included at a Dallas Historical Society dinner honoring
the city's "Cornerstone Companies" - a designation
also bestowed on such local icons as Neiman Marcus and the
Hotel Adolphus.Mr. Lake founded the company in 1889, according
to a decades-old newspaper account, using the assets of a
defunct printing company that he purchased with a Swiss watch.He
bet the fate of his company on the continued existence of
bureaucracy.Rubber stamps are used to signify that a check
has been endorsed, a building inspection passed, a birth certificate
registered, a letter received, a contract canceled, a job
application accepted (or rejected), a memo forwarded or a
work order paid in full.The company, 113 years later, produces
22,000 stamps a year."It's not a growth market, but it's
a stable market," owner David Atwell said. "As long
as there's paperwork, there'll be a need for rubber stamps."
Mr. Atwell purchased the company 10 years
ago, but for most of its history, it was run by descendants
of Mr. Lake, who died in 1934. A family company"It was
a horse-and-buggy company. The family ran things, and they
always did things the old way," recalled Phyllis Roebuck,
65, a longtime employee who recently retired. "David
really brought them into modern ways."Not that the company
has always been averse to innovation. Mr. Lake was known throughout
his industry as the man who invented and patented "Lake's
Flexible Handle Mount."His invention substituted rubber
for wood in the stamp handle, allowing clerks to stamp a document
at a less-than-perfect right angle and still leave a good
impression. He also diversified - opening a plant that made
milk bottle caps.Still, in the 1960s, when Mrs. Roebuck joined
the company - "I guess I was the office manager, but
I never did have a title" - Mr. Lake's company never
had more than 10 employees.Mr. Atwell has converted the old
method of setting rubber type from a font tray to cutting
images by laser. Stamp faces are now designed and revised
on a computer screen.But, even for him, innovation has limits.The
rubber-stamp business has been revitalized in recent years
by the proliferation of decorative "art stamps"
used to decorate stationery or books. But Mr. Atwell has decided
to stick with what he knows best."There's been a real
revival of art stamps in California," he said. "But
that's not what we do. We're pretty strictly business stamps."But
it is a threatened industry.Some retailers are experimenting
with electronically endorsing checks at the cash register,
eliminating the need to take a check down to the bank, have
it deposited and sent back to the consumer.Times changeThe
process, if universally accepted, would eliminate the need
to check endorsement stamps, which constitute 20 percent of
Fred Lake's business.
Mr. Atwell is prepared for the worst."The handwriting
is on the wall. Endorsement stamps are doomed," he said.
"I'm not advocating that, but I'm resigned to it."Mr.
Atwell is hoping to extend the life of the company another
113 years by diversifying - recently the company began producing
corporate minute books. And he has purchased Cartan-Varo,
the oldest rubber-stamp company in Fort Worth.Mr. Atwell said
the history of the Fred Lake company had nothing to do with
his interest in buying it.
"I didn't give it a whole lot of thought
about its history when I bought the Fred Lake company,"
he said. "But I thought it was cool enough that I didn't
change the name.
"Now, when I cash a check at the bank, they say, 'Thank
you, Mr. Lake.'"And then, perhaps, stamp it with one
of Mr. Atwell's products.