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Eight years ago, if you had told Kristin Peck that she and her husband, David, would someday be famous for a line of high-end, handmade tile, she probably would have laughed. As a police officer with the Virginia Beach Police Department and the mother of a one-year-old son, making tile was the farthest thing from her mind.
Then, in 1994, she shattered her right hand and was forced to retire from the police department—a move that would forever alter the course of her life. To fill the void left by her career as a police officer, Kristin turned to making handmade tile. Over the next seven years, through a great deal of dedication, perseverance and personal sacrifice, Kristin and David grew Blackwater Tile into a nationally distributed line available through Home Depo’s EXPO Design Center. Recently, the couple turned another bend in their journey to success by partnering with Arkansas Ceramic Products, a contract manufacturer located in Little Rock, Ark.
According to Kristin, the past seven years have been both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. “When David and I first started making tile, we had no idea what we were getting into—but we’ve learned so much along the way,” she said. “When you run your own business, whether that business fails or succeeds, the ride is an education that you can’t buy and you can’t find anywhere else.”
Tapping into ResourcesWhen Kristin first began making tile, she had very little experience with art and none with clay—but that was a minor obstacle. She began reading everything she could find and talking to other people in the business. “I would look for the bibliographies in the back of books and call the authors and ask them if they would be willing to share their experiences with me,” Kristin said. “Another good resource was pottery supply houses—–beyond trying to sell products, most of them were very helpful. I made sure I spent a lot of time talking to people, and I ended up talking to people all over the country.”
Armed with information, she bought a block of clay and started making tile—despite her shattered hand. “I’m the queen of trial and error, and when I go after something, I don’t give up,” she laughs. “When David saw that it was no longer just a hobby, he bought me an electric kiln. And that was it. Before long, I had tiles everywhere.”
Within months she had made her first sale—$800 in samples—to a local tile showroom called The Galleria. Several weeks later, a sales representative from Country Floors, one of the leading distributors and importers of high-end and handmade tile, saw her samples at The Galleria and was immediately intrigued. When she found out Kristin lived in the area, she called her to set up a meeting.
“At that first meeting she looked at me and asked, ‘What’s your production?’ I started hemming and hawing, and she said, ‘Kristin, without production, you have no product—at least not if you’re going to go in the direction I think you are.’ So we knew we had to expand,” Kristin said.
By then, David was actively involved in the business in addition to his full-time job in Virginia’s Civil Service. The couple secured a bank loan and bought four electronically controlled Skutt kilns. They joined a local builders’ association and signed on with several regional distributors. As interest in their product line grew, Blackwater Tile, named after the Virginia city where it was started, quickly began making a name for itself.
Persistence Pays OffDespite David and Kristin’s early successes, turning their business into a profitable venture was not easy. Eager to improve their product line, the couple attended major tile shows, such as Coverings, to find new business contacts and see what other tile producers were making. They continued to work with Country Floors but had difficulty agreeing on designs. Then, in the fall of 2000, a friend suggested they try to sell their tile through Home Depot’s new EXPO Design Center.
“It took me about three days to get the right name,” Kristin said. “Every person I spoke to referred me to another person. They were not looking for new vendors, but I pushed and pushed. Once they agreed to let me send samples, I sent them right away, and any time they asked for anything—like a different color sample or an expanded product—I immediately sent it. Before we let them say no, we found out what they wanted and sent it to them.”
Eventually, their persistence paid off. By the spring of 2001, they had signed a vendor agreement with EXPO. “It was very exciting—but it was also very scary,” Kristin said. “They immediately wanted planagrams (plans showing how our display would be laid out) and price sheets, and we had to begin producing a lot more tile than what we were already making. It was very overwhelming.”
Hoping to be eligible for early retirement in 2002, David continued working full time for the Civil Service while also putting in extra hours at Blackwater Tile. Between the two of them, they often worked more than 100 hours per week making tile and handling the administrative functions of the business. But the most difficult part wasn’t the work—it was the time away from their two young sons.
“The family side of it was really hard. When we started with EXPO, our youngest son, who was five at the time, ended up getting surgery to get his adenoids removed. Then a week later he broke his arm, and it didn’t set right so the doctor had to re-break it. Then September 11 happened. So it was one thing right after another,” Kristin said. “At that point we had to ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’ We really hadn’t gotten to the point where we were making a profit—everything we made was going right back into the company for bigger equipment. We felt like we were basically working for free, and we weren’t able to spend very much time with our children. Something had to change.”
Taking the Next StepIn November 2001, David and Kristin met Carl and Cindy Moody through a mutual business acquaintance. The Moody’s, who had established Arkansas Ceramics seven years earlier to make absorbent ceramic tile coasters for Hindostone Products, Indianapolis, Ind., were looking for new ways to branch out.
“After September 11, the giftware industry, which we were mostly in, slowed down a bit, and we decided that we didn’t want to be so reliant on one industry,” Carl said. “We didn’t want to make commodity wall tile or anything like that because we knew we wouldn’t be able to compete with other manufacturers. But we also didn’t want to do something so exotic that it couldn’t be replicated fairly easily.
“When we met David and Kristin, the situation seemed perfect. Cindy and I liked them immediately, and we were really impressed with their tile. They hated the manufacturing side, and that’s what we love doing, so we suggested that we take over manufacturing for them so that they could concentrate on design and the other things they really wanted to do.”
For Kristin and David, the Moody’s were the answer they had been seeking. “David and I were very skeptical going into the whole situation,” Kristin explained. “You hear all these stories about small companies who bring in other business people and end up losing everything, so we were worried about that. But when we met the Moody’s, we really liked them. They’re very family-oriented, and they understood our situation. They had a nice manufacturing facility and a diverse staff. We found out as much as we could about them by talking to their employees and other business professionals who knew them, and there wasn’t anything we didn’t like.”
Within days, the two couples had signed an agreement, and by February, Arkansas Ceramics started making Blackwater Tile. But while the transition went relatively quickly, it was not without challenges.
“It was hard for David and I both not to be in control,” Kristin said. “When you're doing a project yourself, you know it’s going to get done right and on time, even if you have to stay up until 2 a.m. to do it. When you’re three or four states away, you feel like you have to be constantly looking over their shoulder. And we didn’t want to do that, but our name was on the product, and we were the ones apologizing if something wasn’t right. We had to learn to step back and let them do their jobs, because that’s what we had agreed for them to do. That was very difficult in the beginning. But they really did a good job of working closely with us and recreating our designs, so before long, we felt confident they could handle it.”
According to Kristin, the key to making the transition successful has been compatibility. “When we first met Carl and Cindy, they told us we were wasting our time on things that we didn’t have to be concerned about. And that was the truth—we were doing parts of the production that we really shouldn’t have been doing, and we weren’t using our skills to the best of our ability,” Kristin said. “Now we’re working with somebody who appreciates the skills we can contribute, and everyone’s strengths are maximized. It’s become a real partnership.”
The Path AheadNow that Arkansas Ceramics is manufacturing their tile, David and Kristin have been able to once again focus on the things that are important to them.
“We’ve reclaimed our lives,” Kristin said. “About a month and a half after we were no longer doing the manufacturing, we made popcorn and sat down and watched a movie with our sons, and we hadn’t done that in over three years.
“If we hadn’t hooked up with the Moody’s when we did, we probably would have had to make another decision, and I don’t want to speculate as to what that decision might have been. But I think the decision we made is definitely the best one we could have made. Now we get to spend time with our children, which I feel is very important, and pursue more creative endeavors.”
Both David and Kristin are still actively involved in the business. David, who obtained his early retirement from the Civil Service in March, now handles the EXPO account and other marketing efforts, while Kristin focuses on developing new tile designs. She’s also recently begun a new career as a writer, sharing her knowledge and her experiences with other potters and artists. Her first book, The Art of Handmade Tile, was published in May 2002, and her second book is due out early next year.
“I’m hoping other small potteries can learn from our experiences and glean some insight into what they need to do and what they need to be aware of,” Kristin said. “If you’re going to run your own business, get ready to put everything else in your life on hold. But don’t be afraid to look at creative ways of taking the next step to grow your business. If you’re bogged down in manufacturing, how are you going to find time for design? And if you’re bogged down in creative work, how are you going to get your head out of the sand long enough to make people happy and deal with the administrative side of things? Finding the right business partner can allow you to capitalize on your strengths while relieving you of your burdens.”