PPP: Three Generations of Firing
According to Jim Skutt, the company’s current president and third-generation owner, Skutt Ceramic Products began with a commitment to excellence. “When my uncle and grandfather started the company, they never would have talked about mission statements, corporate philosophies or goals. But their mantra was always clearly, ‘That’s not good enough,’ whether it was product quality or customer service,” Jim says. “That philosophy really hasn’t changed over the years.”
From Steel to CeramicsWhen Ralph Skutt, Jim’s grandfather, and Neil Skutt, his uncle, began the business in 1953, they were just looking for a way to keep food on their tables. They had built a successful business together in Olympia, Wash., casting stainless steel for yacht hardware, but when the U.S. became involved in the Korean War in the early 1950s, stainless steel shipments virtually disappeared.
“They were lamenting their woes around the dinner table one day, and a neighbor who made slip-cast ceramics said, ‘Why don’t you figure out how to make a ceramic kiln that doesn’t have any hot corners?’ One thing led to another, and with the help of Johnny Miller, an airline mechanic who also owned Miller Ceramics, they pioneered the round kiln design,” Jim explains.
Word of the new electric kiln, Model 13H-13, spread quickly. By 1958, when Jim’s father, Phil, became involved with the company, Skutt Ceramic Products had built solid relationships with several dealers and were selling a number of kilns to hobbyists and potters in the Pacific Northwest. When Ralph passed away later that year, Neil and Phil became business partners. They moved the company to a larger, 5,000-square-foot facility in Portland, Ore., and continued to expand the business and solidify its reputation. But they soon came to a crossroads.
“My uncle is a brilliant engineer—but he’s also a card-carrying perfectionist, and he felt he needed to be personally involved in all facets of production. As the company grew, this became more and more of a problem. They finally realized that one wanted continued growth, while the other was not happy in that mode,” says Jim.
Realizing that the company needed to have a production mindset to succeed, Neil Skutt sold his share of the business to Phil in 1977. Despite the change in ownership, the company’s commitment to excellence remained. “Our mission statement is: ‘To help our customers from artists to industry make great things by supplying excellent products and personal service,’” Jim says. “I think my dad has always shot for perfection and settled for excellence. That, coupled with doing what we say we’re going to do when it comes to customer service, is the reason Skutt has been so successful.”
Manufacturing MilestonesAs Skutt Ceramic Products grew, the company was always on the lookout for technological innovations that could help its customers achieve more successful firings. In 1954, the company became one of the first kiln builders to adopt W.P. Dawson Inc.’s KilnSitter technology, invented by Wilfred P. Dawson. The KilnSitter, which is still in use today, is a simple cone-actuated electric switch that is initially held closed by a rigid pyrometric cone. As the cone begins to bend at the end of the firing process, it releases a tripper mechanism that permits the switch to open, thus turning the kiln off. Prior to this device, the only way to control the firing process was to sit by the kiln near the end of the firing cycle and watch for the pyrometric cone to fall. (Modern variations of the KilnSitter have been modified to take advantage of improved materials and processes.)
“When we first started using the KilnSitter technology, we went from a fully manual design, where you actually had to shut the switches off yourself, to this miraculous, automatic operation. That was a significant milestone for us,” says Jim.
The introduction of Skutt’s digitally controlled KilnMaster kilns in the early 1990s provided another major shift in firing technology. The controller enabled users to fire to the maturity of a specific pyrometric cone, using an advanced process patented by the Orton Ceramic Foundation; or to design their own firing programs with a customized temperature rate, end temperature and holding time. This technology has been continually modified to incorporate the latest in computerized control, including the ability to store multiple firing profiles and view firing programs on a computer monitor.
“The digital kilns are probably 85 percent of what we sell today,” says Jim. “Everything is moving that way.”
Most recently, the company has also developed a line of kilns that it introduced in 2002, specifically for fusing and slumping glass. “We’ve always had a few products that go into the glass fusing and slumping markets, but this new product line features dedicated controllers specifically designed for glass operations,” Jim says. “We’ve actually accomplished some things there with that software that have turned some heads in the glass industry. For instance, the kilns feature a new firing mode that we call ‘GlassFire Mode,’ which allows kiln operators to run factory-set fusing and slumping programs with just a few simple key presses. Operators who want to design their own programs also have the option of doing so through the kiln’s ‘Ramp and Hold’ programming mode.”
Continued DedicationIn January 1998, Skutt moved to a new, 30,000-square-foot facility in Portland, and one month later, Jim Skutt took over from his father as president of the company. Today, Skutt Ceramic Products is continuing to grow. The company has 45 employees and sells kilns to a variety of customers, from individual artists and hobbyists to large production potters and industrial users—including a small percentage of customers outside North America. The company achieved record sales revenue in 2003, and it is working on several new technologies that it plans to introduce in the near future.
As Jim carries the company into its next half-century, he intends to stay close to the legacy his father helped create over the past 50 years.
“My dad has been an unbelievable father, mentor and previous president of the company. He’s done a fantastic job of getting us here and letting us go into the future with some training wheels—safely but also boldly,” says Jim. “My overall objective is to leave the company better than I found it. Of course, I found it in pretty good shape, so that will be a tough job.
“Ultimately, we’ll continue to diversify in a way that doesn’t distract us from our core competency, which is building hot boxes. When we find other areas where we can diversify, we’ll try to integrate those areas into the company so that we’re not just dependent on art applications. But we won’t stray far from building kilns, and our commitment to quality and service won’t change.”