Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Howard Flint Ink Co.

What is today one of the world’s largest ink manufacturers got its start in Detroit, and for 40 years, it operated out of this facility in Southwest Detroit. Chances are, you’ve had something its inks printed in your hands at some point in your life.

The Howard Flint Ink Co. was founded in 1920 by Henry Howard Flint. A Detroit native, Flint was born in 1884, and was a product of the Detroit public schools. He spent seven years working in the accounting and advertising departments at the Detroit Free Press, leaving to take a job as a chemical salesman, then spending another seven years working for an ink manufacturing company before deciding to try his own ink-stained hand at the business.

In an era before e-mail and websites, it’s sometimes hard to remember just how much ink was used. Newspapers, books, posters and signs, labels, magazines, boxes, envelopes, catalogs, maps, stationary, letters and postcards - even though all of these things are still printed using ink today, in a pre-digital world, the need was far, far greater. And Howard Flint Ink was more than happy to fill that need.

Flint’s company started as a small shop, with its first contract customer being his old employer the Detroit Free Press, but Howard Flint would soon become a national figure in the ink business. He served as his company’s president for 30 years, until 1950, when he became chairman.

In the black

Helping to fuel the company’s success was its focus on innovation. Beyond tinkering with ink recipes, Flint sought to introduce firsts to the industry. For instance, in 1922, Flint Ink became the first in the industry to use tanker truck delivery, beginning with letterpress news ink before adding other ink types.

With business booming, in June 1923, Flint bought vacant property at the southwest corner of Scotten Avenue and the Michigan Central railroad tracks from General Motors Corp.; the land was next door to the automaker’s Cadillac plant. It was here that Flint Ink would build its sprawling brick plant on the site, which had a frontage of 80 feet on Scotten, a depth of 240 feet to the alley and 255 feet of frontage along the tracks. The factory was designed by Weston & Ellington, and in October 1924, the construction contract was awarded to J.H.A. Haberkorn Co.

But Flint Ink almost didn’t become the global juggernaut. On March 3, 1929, Howard Flint and his sons Edgar, 18, and Robert, 16, and their 16-year-old friend Alfred Erwin narrowly escaped death when the iceboat they were riding broke through the ice on Lake St. Clair and plunged into deep water. They were able to swim to stable ice until being rescued.

A national powerhouse

By 1931, the company had factories in Houston; Nashville, Tenn.; and Indianapolis, in addition to the Motor City. In 1936, Flint Ink acquired Temple Inks Co. of Denver.

H. Howard Flint was elected president of the National Association of Printing Ink Makers on May 27, 1933. In December 1949, he was elected president of the National Printing Ink Research Institute at Lehigh University.

A two-alarm fire caused by a short circuit resulted in $20,000 to $30,000 in damage to the factory on April 9, 1947, the equivalent of $290,000 to $436,000 in 2024, when adjusted for inflation. The company not only rebuilt, it decided to expand again.

In June 1950, Flink Ink added a two-story brick office building to its Detroit complex at a cost of $75,000, the equivalent of around $1 million today. By this time, the company operated nine ink-manufacturing plants across the country and an oil refinery in San Antonio.

In June 1958, the Howard Flint Ink Co. announced that it was changing its name, to simply Flint Ink Corp., effective July 1. “According to Howard Flint, chairman, the change conforms more closely to the company’s trade identity and involves no change in management, personnel or method of operation,” The Detroit News wrote June 21, 1958.

By 1967, Flint Ink had grown to have factories in 18 cities across the country and sales agents around the world, and supplied ink to more than 500 newspapers in the U.S., South America and Hong Kong.

Out like Flint

In November 1963, Flint Ink broke ground on a new 162,000-square-foot facility on 10 acres at 25111 Glendale in Redford Township. This new $1.75 million complex - the equivalent of about $18 million in 2024, when adjusted for inflation - would also house the company’s headquarters, factory and research center, replacing the Clark Avenue building. It was announced that after construction was completed, the inkmaker would “dispose” of the Detroit property. And it did not waste time.

The company's move was completed in May 1965. Before the ink had even dried on the company's change of address forms, demolition permits for the entire Southwest Detroit complex were pulled April 30, 1965.

Howard Flint died July 30, 1967, at age 82. He was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit. As much as he had grown the company, it would be his grandson who quadrupled its size and took the company international, as well as moving it into the digital printing era.

That grandson was H. Howard Flint II, who had begun working at the company during college and grad school and began full-time in 1964. He was elected president and COO of Flint Ink Corporation in 1988, and chairman and CEO in 1992, serving until his retirement in January 2005.

He served as treasurer of the Gravure Association of America and as a trustee of the Gravure Education Foundation. The association named him Gravure Person of the Year in 1998. He also served as president of the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM), and was given that organization’s Printing Ink Pioneer Award in 1991, as well as its highest honor – the Ault Award - eight years later in recognition of his contributions to the ink industry. H. Howard Flint II died June 14, 2005, just a few months after retiring.

Continued innovation and growth

In 1970, Flint Ink pioneered the use of alkaline fountain solutions for newspaper printing. Perhaps the biggest mark the company left on the industry - but not on people's hands - was the firm's introduction of the first rub-free black ink for newsprint in 1988 - a big deal for anyone who remembers getting inky fingers from reading the newspaper. In 1992, it created a digital printing ink division, to be on the cutting edge of the shift from computer printers using ribbons to those used today.

Flint Ink opened its 34th facility in North America in 1986, this time in Richmond, Va. The company was the nation’s third largest maker of printing ink at the time.

In 1996, the company acquired BASF Corp's North American Graphics Group. By 2000, the company had operations in Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East, Latin America and India/Pacific. In 2008, the company expanded into Australia and New Zealand with the acquisition of Siegwerk.

Following H. Howard Flint II’s death, a merger in late 2005 with XSYS Print Solutions and Flint Ink Corp. led to the creation of the Flint Group, firmly establishing the enterprise as a global leader.

The Flint Group was acquired in 2014 by Goldman Sachs’ Merchant Banking Division in partnership with Koch Equity Development LLC, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, Inc.

Today, the Flint Group is headquartered in Luxembourg and has 5,000 employees worldwide and had revenues of 1.5 billion euros. It is the No. 1 or 2 supplier in every major market segment that it serves, and has 125 centers in North, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and the Pacific Rim.

And it all began in Detroit.