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.