PPP: Handmade in the U.S.A.
The process is very satisfying from a creative standpoint, and market demand for handmade pottery has continued to grow. But running such a labor-intensive process has also provided a number of challenges. According to owner and president Sam Page, achieving success has largely been a matter of trial and error. “A lot of the things we’ve done are things that people said, ‘Oh, you can’t do it that way,’ and that’s been kind of like waving a red flag at me. Some of it has worked and some of it hasn’t, but that’s the way you learn,” Page says.
Learning Through ExperiencePage, who held a management position at Marshall Pottery in the 70s and early 80s, started East Texas Pottery in 1986 along with Vernon Henderson, a master potter at Marshall, after recognizing that there was a market for a different type of pottery. “I saw a need for pottery that was decorated other than with just stripes, but at the time, Marshall did not want to decorate their pottery any other way. So we elected to go out on our own and make pottery a little differently,” Page explains.
According to Page, most of the pottery that was made in the Marshall, Texas, area was cobalt blue—a popular trend at the time. “We were probably the first company in this area to come out with pottery in colors other than the cobalt blue,” Page says. “We developed different shades of burgundy and a hunter green and a really wide range of other colors.”
These new colors were immediately popular. But for Page, whose background was in management rather than ceramics, developing new colors was a daunting task. He spent some time talking with others in the pottery business and relied a great deal on advice from suppliers—particularly John Williams at Trinity Ceramics in Dallas. But Page didn’t want all the answers handed to him on a silver platter—he wanted to find his own way. “Williams has been a real mentor to me in terms of helping me with clays and glazes,” Page says. “He doesn’t necessarily give me the formula but tells me which direction I need to go. I’ve learned more that way than if he’d just given me all the answers.”
Finding Quality EmployeesFrom the beginning, Page knew he wanted the company’s products to have a handmade, hand-decorated look. But finding people who are willing to work with their hands and who take pride in the quality of their workmanship has become an increasing challenge in our technology-driven society. East Texas Pottery currently employees 35 people whom Page credits with much of the success of the company, but he is constantly on the lookout for additional talent. He has often promoted from within the company when he found that someone had an aptitude for or interest in another type of job.
“Finding quality potters that are also fast is one of our biggest challenges,” Page says. “We’ve had guys working for us who could turn in excess of a ton of clay per day. We have one particular item that takes 7 lbs of clay, and we had people who could make 300 of those per day. But not everyone is that fast. In some cases, we have taken young men who showed an interest in turning and put them in a two-year apprentice program, where they learned under one of our master potters. This allowed us to promote from within and also gave us the potters we needed that understood the speed and level of quality we were looking for.”
Finishing is another area that Page has struggled with. “Sometimes it’s almost as difficult to finish a piece right as it is to turn it. We try to inspect the pieces as much as we can and instill a pride of workmanship in the people that do it so when it goes out of here they can say, ‘I had a hand in that,’” Page says.
The process itself has also created some challenges. For instance, the company hand paints its designs on greenware rather than bisqueware. While a number of talented artists have worked for the company over the years, Page has discovered that not all artists can paint on greenware. “We’ve found that people who have done watercolors are the easiest to train to our method of painting. That’s the closest that we’ve found to what we do. We’re always on the lookout for somebody that has that talent that we can transfer to dirt,” Page laughs.
Developing New DesignsFrom his experience in the retail business, Page learned first-hand that the “customer is king.” When developing a new design, Page first considers whether the product will sell, rather than how easy or difficult the product will be to make. “That’s probably a little bit different of an approach compared to other potteries, but I think it’s made some difference for us in terms of how successful our products are,” Page says.
Page watches the markets closely to stay abreast of trends, and also relies on his artists to suggest ideas. At least two times a year, Page holds meetings with one of the potters and several artists to develop new designs. “I usually have an idea of what I want, and we’ll take an afternoon or two to develop that idea. I’ll give parameters and see what the artists can come up with. We might take two or three different ideas and meld them into one,” Page says.
Once the team has developed something they like, they show it to others in the company, as well as some of their husbands and wives, to gauge the potential market reaction.
Page admits that this process isn’t very scientific, but believes it has served the company well so far. “If our employees and their spouses don’t like it, we know the market as a whole probably won’t like it. It’s not very scientific, but it seems to work for us,” Page says.
Each new design is tested in production before it’s released to the market, and it’s not always an easy process. “It might take us a month and 24 tries to get a piece just the way we want it,” Page says, “but the end result is well worth the effort.”
Meeting Market DemandFor about the first decade the company was in operation, its sales nearly doubled every year. Growth has been a bit more sluggish over the past several years as the overall economy began to slide downward, but Page believes the pottery business is already back on the upswing. Anticipating that demand for East Texas Pottery’s products will continue to grow, Page has begun evaluating some changes that he can make to his production process to ensure that he has no trouble filling orders.
“We’ve done a couple of very successful custom decals, where the design ultimately looked like a hand-painted piece. That seemed to make a big difference with our customers compared to commercial decals that are too detailed. We’ll still always do some hand-painting, but we’re going to develop more decals that have that hand-painted look to make things easier on the decorating end,” Page says.
Still, despite today’s trend toward automation and the ongoing challenge of finding good employees, Page doesn’t intend to change much else about the way his business operates. “Our initial vision for the company was to produce handmade pottery. That’s what sets us apart from other pottery producers, and we don’t want to get away from that,” he says.