Few would doubt the size of the impact that the IT revolution has had on our lives. Online shopping is now the norm, social networking sites have helped to remove dictators and many have made their fortunes. But for every Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a Ted Fish.
Fish, 59, is the managing director of Fish Holes Ltd, a family firm that has been manufacturing hole punches for the stationary market for decades. But with the explosion in email traffic, and the advent of the paperless office, fewer and fewer people are punching holes in paper anymore. And Fish is almost a broken man.
”The whole IT thing has been dreadful for us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite” he contends “There are some great things about the Internet. For instance, I love bickering with complete strangers on message boards and I’m absolutely porn mad. But what a lot of people don’t recognise is there are many downsides.”
And nowhere is it more evident than when standing in Fish’s forlorn, near empty factory in Blackburn. “We used to have three hundred workers in here, turning out thousands of hole punches 24 hours a day. But look at the place now. There’s just me, the wife, my son Geoff, Large Kevin and Patch the Spaniel, and even his back legs have gone.”
But it isn’t just the rise of the World Wide Web that caused the problems. The 2001 US Presidential Election also had a devastating impact, “That hanging chads business really hurt us. Suddenly everyone started asking whether hole punching really was for them. We tried to tell people that we at Fish Holes have always stood for proper craftsmanship and tradition. Those American outfits were just cowboys. They had no clue about how to judge the optimum ratio between pressure and paper thickness or the intricacies of compressive spring tension. But the damage was done. It was guilt by association”.
And unsurprisingly, the recession and cuts in government spending have made their mark too
“There was a time when we could rely on private companies and government departments massively overspending on stationary they didn’t need, but those days are gone too.”
Some may look at industries like hole punching and feel that they’re simply outdated and irrelevant but Mr Fish feels that they are missing the point.
“The sad thing is that Fish Holes has always been a genuinely innovative company. They all laughed at us when we introduced a removable plastic bottom to collect all the loose bits of paper. And we sent shockwaves through the hole punching fraternity when we introduced that slidey ruler thing that lets you line up your paper properly. But there’s only so much that you can do.”
Even attempts at diversifications have reaped little benefit.
“We’ve tried everything. Drawing pins, paperclips of all sizes, those funny little bits of green cord with two metal things at each end that are somehow supposed to bind paper together, but no, the brutal truth is that we are on our last legs.”
There is perhaps one slight chink of light for Mr Fish. The increasing interest in traditional manufacturing techniques has meant opened some small doors in the retro crafts industry.
“It’s true, we have sold a few items at Craft Fairs and Farmers Markets and the like. It seems that there’s a lot of gullible middle class people out there who are willing to pay a 500% mark up if you put something in a wicker basket and stick the label ‘Hand Crafted’ on it. It’s made us a few bob.”
And lamentably, even this won’t be enough. “I think we’re looking at six months max before we have to wind the company up. And do you know what? Before I send off the paperwork to Companies House, I’ll punch two, neat little holes, exactly five centimetres wide of the middle on each sheet of A4, just one last time.”