Two brothers, both Puget Sound grads, are the world’s largest producers of waterproof paper
By Tod Jones
You’re standing out in the rain. You don’t want to be dripping wet, but you have to because you’re:
a) a logging employee tallying the day’s timber count;
b) a meter cop in Seattle dispensing parking tickets;
c) the surveyor for a development company writing down measurements; or
d) an ornithologist who just loves sketching pictures of the rare Slinky-Toed Warbler in its rain-forest habitat.
Disagreeable as it is, human beings often find themselves working outside in inclement weather. And if there’s one thing that agrees even less with the soggy outdoors than a new hairdo, it’s paper.
Solving the perplexing dilemma of how to tally, write, note, record and draw on a substance that wants to turn to mush when exposed to moisture has been the secret to success for Scott ’74 and Todd ’75 Silver, who own and operate the J.L. Darling Corp. Their Tacoma-based business produces Rite in the Rain, a waterproof paper that is, well, the darling of anyone who has ever had to work in the damp. Its unique chemical coating sheds water, making it possible to write legibly even in a rainstorm.
Most folks have never heard of Rite in the Rain, but it has long been standard issue for firefighters, police, military, disaster and search-and-rescue personnel, geologists, surveyors and nursery workers. Photographers, bird watchers, hikers, climbers and boaters are relatively new to the market and growing in number. Type the name Rite in the Rain into a World Wide Web search engine and you’ll find several sites, from field and naturalist supplies to the Geological Society of America.
Invented in 1916 by Jerry Darling, a Northwest printer by trade, and finessed over the years by the Silvers, the process of creating waterproof paper, unlike similar products covered in plastic, involves applying an oil-based coating to regular, everyday paper.
"It’s paint," Todd Silver says, "but with a number of added attributes such as paraffin and titanium dioxide." Only six people know the secret formula: the brothers, their dad, the plant manager and two other employees.
So how did two brothers end up in Tacoma, sounding less like business graduates and more like mad scientists cooking up a mysterious secret formula for paper products?
"When I drew close to graduation from Puget Sound in 1975, I really was scratching my head as to my future direction," says Todd, 46, the younger of the two brothers by a year. "As a college student, I’d been heavily involved as a volunteer in Young Life, a non-denominational Christian outreach program. Although I’d received some nice job offers from the private sector, I felt that perhaps I might pursue ministry of some type. My quandary was answered when an offer arrived combining both business and ministry.
"Wycliffe Bible Translators, an educational missionary group, hired me to be the branch business manager of their Darwin, Australia, base. It was a wonderful experience," says Todd. "We worked with 16 different aboriginal tribes throughout the northern half of Australia. We’d help them formulate a written form of language, and once they did that, we’d teach them to read."
But after about a year and a half, Todd says he was ready to come back to his hometown of Tacoma. "The Northwest was calling me," he says.
It wasn’t just the Northwest. Lloyd Silver ’49, had contacted his sons to see if they were interested in coming on board at J. L. Darling, a company he had become part owner of since joining the firm in 1958.
Scott, by then a federal bank examiner in Spokane, says although they were initially tentative about working together in a family-run business, with the challenge of meshing family personalities, they wanted to give it a shot.
"Not only was there the prospect of eventual ownership, but I saw it as something that was an interesting business," he says. "A niche business is always interesting if it’s a fun niche. As a bank examiner I got pretty good at studying businesses and knew this was a good opportunity."
"I love Tacoma, having grown up here," adds Todd. "I felt like I wanted to get in and do it."
Over the next several years, Scott and Todd assumed more and more company responsibility, eventually buying their father’s share of the business in 1994 and the Darling estate interest in 1995.
The two brothers are now co-presidents of J.L. Darling and have since discovered that working together is enjoyable both as family members and a business partners; it allows their individual styles and personalities to complement one another.
Todd, who majored in marketing, has an engaging manner and maintains the steady banter of a salesman. Scott is decidedly quieter, with an accountant’s reserved demeanor. Not surprisingly, Todd handles sales, marketing and new product development, while Scott deals with financing and operations.
"I’m Mr. Outside, he’s Mr. Inside," says Todd. "We’ve really morphed together as a good team. Neither is each other’s boss."
"We do real well together," agrees Scott. "Amazingly, for two brothers. I guess we got all our wrestling and tussling out of the way when we were kids."
And where their differences complement, their similarities enhance, bringing evolution to an 83-year-old business. Both share an intense love for the outdoors, from snow skiing and shell rowing, to their growing involvement as volunteers in Alaska’s Iditarod race. As long-time Northwest natives, legacies of the University of Puget Sound (Todd is named after Todd Hall) and active community members with families and children of their own, both are concerned with the way their business interacts with the environment.
"We’ve become an exceptionally green company," says Scott, "especially with the onset of Todd’s and my involvement. With both of us having been involved in environmental sciences at Puget Sound, we came into it with more of an enlightened view."
To that end, in addition to producing 100 percent recycled products, over the past few years the company has been working on developing a less expensive and more environmentally friendly water-based successor to the oil-based Rite in the Rain.
"Right now it’s a solvent-based solution," says Scott. "We want to modify the coating to make it more environmentally friendly. I’ve been working with various coating manufacturers and suppliers to develop something that is solvent free."
After nearly five years of trying, Todd says they are just around the corner from a solution. "It’s a conundrum," he continues. "How do you make waterproof paper with a water-soluble coating?"
For the Silver brothers, the formula is simple. Mix equal parts of chemistry, hard work and luck with undampened enthusiasm and voila: the write stuff!
The J.L. Darling Corp. at a Glance
Principals: Scott Silver ’74; Todd Silver ’75
Address: 2212 Port of Tacoma Road (manufacturing)
2614 Pacific Highway East (marketing and distribution)
Products: Waterproof paper
Annual sales: $3.5 million
Philosophy: "Do it honestly and do it right."