Ceramic Industry

INSIDE CI: Reinventing Yourself

March 1, 2005
Editor Kristi Grahl's monthly roundup.

It's no secret that the whitewares sector has been struggling. This has been particularly evident in dinnerware, where a confluence of events-a weak global economy, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the war in Iraq-led to a reduction in personal/business travel and dining out between 2001-2003. While these important areas of spending have been picking up steam since mid-2004, for some dinnerware producers the reversal has been too little too late. The slowdown in sales combined with massive pricing pressures from cheap imports have forced a number of U.S. and European producers to close factories and shift manufacturing to lower-cost regions, primarily in Asia. It's no longer unexpected to hear that yet another plant has closed its doors.

But there have been some surprises. Perhaps the most notable was the announcement by BC Acquisition Co. LLC in January 2004 that it intended to buy Oneida's Buffalo China plant, which had been slated for closure along with four of Oneida's other factory sites. In an era when most centuries-old dinnerware plants were running out of steam, this visionary group, led by Robert Lupica, believed they could turn the old paradigm on edge and bring something new to the table-literally. Rather than focusing exclusively on its traditional area of expertise, the company decided to reevaluate its options and reinvent itself as ceramic manufacturer with a wide range of capabilities, from decorating small-run, customized items to producing spray dried ceramic bodies and high-tech components on a contract basis.

One year after the plant reopened its doors as Niagara Ceramics in March 2004, the company is well on its way to achieving its goals. Its dogged determination and willingness to be flexible have made all the difference in today's sink-or-swim environment.

"We constantly remind ourselves that our goal is to be here. We understand that we're going to have to continually change to ensure that we're meeting customer and market demands," says Lupica.

Other agile manufacturers are also finding increasing success. In Denmark, the 230-year-old porcelain manufacturer Royal Copenhagen continues to produce its popular Blue Fluted line, which dates back to the origins of the company. But as author Pier Giorgio Burzacchini notes in "Royal Copenhagen Celebrates Continued Success," the company's manufacturing plant "has never stopped modernizing and expanding, and its aesthetic culture has constantly reflected the essence of contemporary society." In September 2004, the company opened a new 161,000-square-foot plant in Denmark with state-of-the-art equipment that ensures the highest possible quality and manufacturing efficiency. And while the Blue Fluted line remains its best-selling product, Royal Copenhagen has continued to reinvent its image by introducing a steady stream of fresh ideas and designs.

Now is not the time to be timid. It is the companies that find a way to stand out from the crowd that will have the best chance of succeeding in the coming months and years.