PPP: Phoenix Rising

March 1, 2005
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After a fire destroyed its main studio in 2004, Campbell Pottery Studios has rebounded and is poised to become more successful than ever before.



Campbell Pottery Studios' main production facility after the fire.


Bill Campbell knows a thing or two about building a business from the ground up. After all, in 1968, when Campbell was 32, he left a job with General Motors to focus full-time on his true passion: pottery. The result was Campbell Pottery Studios, a Cambridge Springs, Pa.-based factory that grew to produce 24,000 pieces a month, supplying some 550 galleries along the way. Yes, Campbell knows something about building a business, but he probably never thought he'd see the day his dream burned to the ground.

Trial by Fire

On the evening of April 23, 2004, Campbell received an alarming phone call. One of his buildings was on fire, the caller said. Campbell made the three-mile trek from his home to his studio, only to find his worst fears confirmed. Flames leaped above the treeline, and six fire departments had responded to the call. When the smoke cleared, all that was left of Campbell Pottery Studios' main production facility were a few windows and brick ruins.

Though initial speculation placed blame for the fire on a kiln, a local fire inspector developed a theory that put the start of the blaze near the roof, 20 yards away from any of the studio's kilns.

"We think it was a motor on a tank that was stirring glazes," Campbell explains. "I have some glazes that have problems with suspension, and I stir them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We think that the motor may have had something on top of it-like an apron or a jacket or a piece of newspaper-that helped the fire along."

Despite losses exceeding $1 million, Campbell was able to salvage several items from the building.

"The back of the building and anything that was on the second floor was burned," Campbell says, "But there was a mezzanine floor that shielded some of the equipment on the first floor, including our filter press, pugmill, pre-pug equipment and a big RAM press."

Campbell says that insurance covered much of the cost of the building and its contents, and he eventually expects to be compensated for part of the studio's lost income. But as any business owner faced with calamity will tell you, insurance is not a cure-all; it may cover the loss of material things, but it can never make up for lost time.

Campbell sums it up best. "If you have to wait six months to get back in business," he says, "you'll lose your business."

Campbell's new gas kiln, built by Pyrotech Services, is an essential tool in creating his unique glaze effects.

Hitting the Ground Running

With his usual orders to fill, and the added specter of a holiday gift-giving season right around the corner, Campbell knew he had to put the shock of the fire behind him-and quickly. This meant getting Campbell Pottery Studios up and running in some form or another as soon as possible.

"Fortunately, we owned more than one building," Campbell says. "The fire destroyed the building that housed the manufacturing. However, our mold shop and the building that contains much of our finished work was untouched.

"We were able to use that work to send to our customers as though nothing had happened for one week. Then we started running out of this and that, and by the end of six or seven weeks, we had run out of enough products that it was difficult to ship anything," he says.

Luckily, Campbell had turned his attention to manufacturing new pieces of his Flambeaux pottery line through an impromptu production process well before his surplus began to dwindle.

"I set myself up with some new electric kilns in another warehouse area that I had and quickly made some new molds that would temporarily enable us to make the cast portion of the Flambeaux line," Campbell says. "I was actually back in the manufacturing business within a month after the fire."

Having regained roughly 25% of his pre-fire production numbers (a feat he equates to making a ship sink "more slowly"), Campbell set his sights on finding a nearby building to house his revamped studio. He settled on a former Carnation Milk facility, a 38,000-square-foot behemoth that easily eclipsed the 7500 square feet of his former workspace.

"This is a much more modern and suitable building than the building that burned down," Campbell says of his new facility. "As soon as we settled on this building, we went to work just as fast and as hard as we could to get it ready for production work. We used a contractor to help us with part of it, and many of our own people volunteered to come in here and put this place in order, get it painted and get it going. You would be amazed. This place looks like it's been in business for years."

Though the new studio features much of the same equipment-including RAM presses, casting benches and spray booths-as that of its predecessor, one element plays a particularly important role in Campbell's manufacturing process: the gas kiln.

"I had to have a gas kiln because there are certain decorative effects that I can only get by firing with gas," Campbell explains. "At the end of the firing, I need a flame that is sloppy enough that I've got a lot of free carbon floating around in the atmosphere that will change the colors of the glazes."

Campbell estimates that it took four months from the time of the fire for his new studio to hit its stride. By that point, fall was looming and Christmas was on the horizon. Campbell stepped up production to meet the demands of the season, keeping the studio running seven days a week, 10 hours a day through late November.

"Most of my shops want to have whatever they're going to have in their stores by Black Friday," Campbell says, referring to the day after Thanksgiving traditionally known as the biggest shopping day of the year. "After that, we went back to five days a week."



The casting area in the new studio.

The Future

With a workplace nearly five times the size of his former studio, a retail store and hundreds of additional galleries showcasing his work, it would seem that Bill Campbell is poised to make the jump to big business, that rarified air enjoyed by so few in the pottery industry these days. However, Campbell insists he has no immediate plans to branch out. A practitioner of the hands-on approach, he enjoys being the creative engine it seems only a smaller operation will allow.

"If you start going to the next level, you have to have a lot more people, a lot more managers," Campbell says. "I don't mind the studio growing 5 or 10% a year, but I don't want to go to yet another really big level because I'm not anxious to create those kind of problems. I'd rather enjoy what I have."

For more information about Campbell Pottery Studios, visit http://www.campbellpottery.com .

SIDEBAR: Equipment Selection

Pottery Production Practices asked Bill Campbell to discuss some of the equipment in his new studio. Here's what he had to say:Pugmill - Western Claymachinery (http://www.claymachinery.com ): "A lot of pugmills are too big for my pottery. I needed something that I could use on relatively small pottery rather than something that was going to turn out so much clay that I couldn't use it."

Clay Press - RAM (http://www.ramprocess.com ): "The RAM Press makes open objects very well."

Gas Kiln - Pyrotech Services (http://www.pyrotechservices.com ): "There are a minimum of 600 pieces in my gas kiln every day. It'll be the last kiln I'll ever buy."

Electric Kilns - L&L Kilns (http://www.hotkilns.com ): "I use electric kilns for crystalline glazes. They're wonderful kilns. I have six altogether."

Spray Booths - Newell Welding (http://www.newweld.com ): "I have two booths. We're probably spraying 800 to 1000 pieces a day, at a minimum."

Filter Presses - Netzsch Inc. (http://www.netzschusa.com )/Andritz Group (http://www.andritz.com )*: "These are really good presses. We use a filter press to make our plastic clay and to take all of the floc out of the water that comes out of the spray booths. All of the wastewater from the studio-with the exception of the water that goes through the toilets-goes through one of the filter presses so that we can reclaim as much water as possible."

*Andritz Group acquired Netzsch's Filtration Business Unit in August 2004 and now supplies these filter presses and other filtration equipment.

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