PPP - Selling Clay and Buying Pots

September 1, 2002
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From buying and selling handmade pottery to providing high-quality raw materials and other supplies, Sheffield Pottery is redefining the role of pottery supplier.

Sheffield offers over 5000 products for the pottery industry.
The parents of John Cowen, president of Sheffield Pottery, Inc., just happened to buy a farm that was located on top of a substantial clay deposit. Over the years, the family farm evolved into a highly successful pottery business, which in turn developed into a flourishing pottery supply company.

Today, Sheffield offers over 5000 products for the pottery industry, including moist clay and other raw materials, equipment, supplies and accessories. New e-commerce capabilities on the company’s website allow many of those products to be ordered online. A smaller commemorative division still produces ware for wholesale customers, and the company’s construction division supplies clay for industrial and environmental uses. Additionally, in a unique arrangement, Sheffield purchases ware that is made by its potter customers and sells it in the company’s own retail showroom. As you may have guessed, this is not your typical pottery supply business.

The Beginning

Joseph and Marie Cowen were married in 1943. They lived and worked on their newly purchased farm in Sheffield, Mass., raising animals and running a roadside fruit and vegetable sales stand. While they were aware that their property contained a significant amount of clay, they used the land exclusively as the family farm. Then, a magazine article on pottery prompted them to explore their clay’s possibilities.

“My mother had a degree from Rhode Island School of Design and they just, out of curiosity, mined some of the clay and tried to do something with it,” explains John. “As the story goes, my dad made the teacup and my mom made the saucer—and the rest is history.”

The couple began selling their pottery at their roadside stand, alongside their produce. By 1946, they’d given up farming completely to create Sheffield Pottery and focus exclusively on the pottery business. Joseph converted the farm’s barn into a retail salesroom, and the business benefited from the local tourist trade. The company’s early equipment included jiggers, potters wheels and a 6 x 6 ft oil fired kiln.

Using the clay they dug from their property, the Cowens produced decorative and functional pottery. One of their specialties was personalized ware. Their Brown and White line, for example, featured pieces like plates to commemorate weddings or births. In its raw state, Sheffield’s clay is blue-gray, but after it’s fired it becomes reddish-brown. To create personalized items, they would spray a white engobe over the piece and sgraffito a design through it. By scraping off the white engobe layer, the brownish color of the ware underneath was revealed to create the design. These pieces would often include people’s names and the date of the event they were celebrating, and occasionally, an underglaze or a clear overglaze would also be used.

While the business benefited from local traffic, it was by no means limited by geography. Word of mouth spread quickly. “They sold out of a retail outlet, but they would mail and ship throughout the country,” says John. “By 1949 they had had a sale in every state, and they were featured in Redbook magazine.”

Sheffield purchases its customers' handmade pottery wholesale and sells the ware in its own retail showroom.

Expanding the Business

Sheffield Pottery continued through the 1950s and ’60s with little change. In 1965, however, Joseph decided to purchase the business of Torrington Pottery, which had been located in Connecticut. He built an addition onto the back of the barn to house the acquired machinery, which included mixers, pugmills, slipcasting equipment, two ram presses and an approximately 300 cu ft shuttle kiln.

This additional equipment allowed the company to create more of its own pottery for retail use, and it also enabled the Cowens to expand into some wholesale business. They began producing items such as custom jugs, maple syrup containers and ashtrays for various companies.

Around that time, Joseph also began getting requests from local potters and schools to supply them with clay. Tired of paying freight costs, these people were looking for a local supplier. “My dad looked at it and saw that it was a good business decision,” says John. “So he started to sell clay and got into the ceramic supply business by request. It’s not something he intentionally went after; the business really came to him.”

Seeing the opportunities in this new venture, Joseph began to promote Sheffield’s ceramic supplies to schools and other potters.

Sadly, Marie became sick with cancer in 1972. Over the next 10 years, as Joseph cared for her through her illness, neither of them had the energy or interest to spend in developing Sheffield’s business. In addition to focusing on his wife, Joseph’s interests changed to retirement income and real estate. He retired completely in 1982 when her illness worsened, and Marie died in 1983.

The Next Generation

Upon his father’s retirement in 1982, John Cowen became president of the company. John had worked for his parents throughout high school during summers and on weekends, and over breaks while he was in college. In 1978, after studying business administration at Bentley College, John had returned to Sheffield Pottery to work full-time. “I did a variety of things,” says John. “I made pottery. I made clay. I drove trucks. I did whatever needed to be done.”

All of this experience has served him well in his role as president, but John’s interests did not mirror those of his parents. “My energy and my drive for the business was not in manufacturing pottery,” he says. “My talents are in more of a mechanical and a business aptitude. [Ceramic supplies] sales were probably about 60% of the business at that time, but my intention was to make it bigger.”

John started growing the business by building the company’s first warehouse in 1983. “And then we worked hard,” he says. “We developed clay bodies. We got new equipment. We published catalogs. We went to national shows and we started to offer new products. We also did a lot of analysis and put more energy into the native clay to find out what it could be used for and what its properties were.” New machinery included pug mills, mixers and screen printing equipment.

Trucks were also purchased, and Sheffield became a licensed motor carrier, permitted to haul open market freight. “We’re very much in the trucking business. We actually have a dispatcher and a freight shopping program,” John says. “We haul open market freight toward the clay mines and then return to our plant in Sheffield with a load of clay to use in our manufacturing.”

1992 saw the addition of a 12,000-square-foot warehouse, and yet another warehouse of approximately the same size was added in 2001. All told, John estimates the company’s current commercial building space to be near 30,000 square feet.

The additional space allowed Sheffield to move all of its manufacturing out of the original, wooden-framed dairy barn and into the newest commercial building this year. The old wooden structure has been completely renovated and now houses two retail showrooms. One showroom houses the company’s pottery supply products in a hardware store-style setting, while the other showroom is dedicated to handmade pottery produced exclusively by Sheffield’s customers. “We know all of the finest potters in the Northeast and in other areas, and we buy their product lines. We buy it wholesale and we sell it retail,” explains John. “We have dozens of different lines of beautiful handmade pottery for sale here in the old showroom where we used to sell our own line of pottery, so the tradition really continues. We don’t produce [the ware] ourselves, but it is all made from our clays.”

Recently renovated, the original barn structure now houses Sheffield's two retail showrooms.

The Issue of Quality

Since the properties of different types of clay vary, Sheffield purchases clay from other suppliers to use in its clay body formulations. “Our particular clay is red, and we sell a lot of white clay,” laughs John. “But where we can use [the native clay] in reds and browns, it’s always a component.” Clay bodies are typically made of many different ingredients, including several different types of clay (depending on the desired, color, plasticity and texture), as well as fluxing and shrinkage components. Sheffield buys clays from all over the country, and imports materials from countries such as England, Spain, Australia and Canada.

One problem John encounters is the declining quality of the clay Sheffield purchases. He’s found that mergers and acquisitions, as well as the ongoing economic climate, have reduced companies’ capital equipment expenditures for quality control. “Some of the clay mines—not all, but some—have drawn a line for quality control and say, ‘This is all we’re going to do.’”

Sheffield works closely with its customers to offer the best quality possible in its moist clays. “Consistent and predictable clay is what our customers have come to expect from us,” says John. “We also get a lot of new customers. The main reason we’re getting customers is word of mouth, and the word of mouth is quality.” A highly experienced and trained staff carefully produces and documents each production run, and all customer calls are answered by the company’s customer service department—not a voice mail system. “If you need to speak to the person who made your clay, you can,” John says.

To ensure the continued quality of the clay Sheffield supplies, John has invested in equipment such as stainless steel mixers and pug mills, a high-intensive Eirich Machines mixer, a 72-in. vibrating screen from Sweco and an iron filtration system. “It took a year to work the bugs out of that batching system, but it’s one of a kind,” says John. “It was designed by us, and installed and tweaked by us—it’s state-of-the-art.”

The Sweco screen allows the company to sieve, classify and refine its clays to a greater extent than ever before, and the iron filtration system can trap and remove the iron from any of the clays that Sheffield produces, such as stoneware or porcelain. “The new equipment enables us to give our customers the purity that they rely on,” John says. “There’s really no part of the production process that we don’t have complete control over.”

Future Plans

Not one to rest on his laurels, John has many plans for Sheffield. He would like to streamline the company’s bulk materials handling process, switching from bulk bags to either rail or tanker truck distribution to become more efficient. Additionally, new products are continually being added for sale on Sheffield’s website, and in the coming weeks, the company will offer handmade pottery for sale online as well.

John also hopes to increase Sheffield’s retail pottery business. “We’re looking to get more potters’ lines in our salesroom,” says John. “There are a lot of nice potters down in the North Carolina area, and some of them now are buying clay from us. We’d like to have an outlet up here for that.”

Sheffield Pottery has certainly come a long way from that first cup and saucer made on the family farm. Continually evolving and diversifying has allowed the company to thrive, and it keeps things interesting as well. “When the phone rings, you really don’t know what you’re going to get,” laughs John. Luckily, that’s just fine with him.

For More Information

For more information, contact the company at U.S. Route 7, P.O. Box 399, Sheffield, MA 01257; (888) 774-2529; fax (413) 229-0200; e-mail info@sheffield-pottery.com; or visit http://www.sheffield-pottery.com.

All photos by Fine Line Multimedia, Lenox, Mass.

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