Ceramic Industry

PROFILES OF LEADERSHIP: Joe Wells III

October 1, 2004
President, The Homer Laughlin China Co., Newell, W.Va.



Background

Joe Wells III was involved in The Homer Laughlin China Co. in various part-time positions throughout high school and college. He started full time with the company in 1963, working his way up into the company's sales department 11 years later. In 1986, he succeeded his father, Joseph M. Wells, Jr., as executive vice president and general manager. In June 2002, he replaced Marcus Aaron II as president of the company.

Notable Achievements

The Homer Laughlin China Co. is the largest china manufacturer in the U.S., employing nearly 1000 people on 37 acres in Newell, W.Va. Its Fiesta(r) product line is one of the most collected china products in the world, and dozens of the company's other patterns are sold through retail outlets and to numerous restaurants, hotels and institutions. Although sales have been relatively flat over the past several years due to difficult economic conditions, the company has remained profitable, with minimal layoffs and no outsourcing.

Wells is quick to point out that Homer Laughlin's success is largely due to its employees and to the past generations of leaders that the family-owned company has seen over its 133-year history. However, few would argue that it was Wells' vision and dedication that have given the company a fighting chance in today's price-pressured environment. Under Wells' tenure, in 1992, Homer Laughlin became one of the first china manufacturers to completely eliminate lead from its products. The company has also modernized its production facilities and decorating processes with state-of-the-art, highly automated equipment that ensures high quality and optimal manufacturing efficiency. Additionally, the Fiesta line-which was designed by Frederick Hurton Rhead and Albert Victor Bleininger, Ph.D.,* in 1936, discontinued in 1973 and reissued by Wells' father in 1986-has expanded significantly under Wells' leadership.

But perhaps Wells' most notable achievement to date has been his determination to keep the company's jobs in the U.S., despite the increasing trend to shift manufacturing to lower-cost regions. In August 2002, Wells was named a "Distinguished West Virginian" by West Virginia Governor Bob Wise for Wells' efforts to retain jobs; and in June 2003, he was named West Virginia's "2003 Master Entrepreneur of The Year" in the annual Ernst & Young awards ceremony that recognizes the most successful and innovative business leaders in the state.

*Albert Victor Bleininger came to Homer Laughlin in 1920 and brought the latest technological advancements to the factory. Although Rhead designed the Fiesta shape, it was primarily Bleininger who was responsible for the development of the glazes.

Keys to Success

The popularity of Homer Laughlin's Fiesta line has helped the company carve out a successful niche in an increasingly challenging market. However, according to Wells, the primary reason for the company's success has been its willingness to embrace new manufacturing technologies.

"Had we not been able to spend the money, and had we not had the foresight and leadership of our ceramic engineers and plant superintendents to recognize and implement the latest technologies, we wouldn't be here today," says Wells.

Future Goals for Homer Laughlin

With imports of low-cost products on the rise, manufacturing dinnerware and foodservice products is likely to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. However, Wells is determined to see Homer Laughlin succeed long term. "We're going to continue to modernize, to seek those niches where we can be successful, to work on design and quality, and to make Homer Laughlin a better company. We're also going to continue to strive to keep jobs in this country," Wells says.

The Homer Laughlin China Co. can be reached at Sixth and Harrison St., Newell, WV 26050; (800) 452-4462; fax (304) 387-0593; e-mail hlc@hlchina.com ; or http://www.hlchina.com .

Perspectives

On Leadership: "Without a doubt, the most important characteristics of a leader are honesty and integrity."

On Industry Trends: "Our society has become increasingly casual. People are also eating out more, and of course that helps the foodservice industry. I don't see these trends reversing themselves any time soon. Additionally, new technologies are allowing us to become more innovative. For example, we recently introduced a new color-scarlet-for our Fiesta(r) ware. In the past, true red colors would burn out at such a low temperature that we could not successfully incorporate them in our firing process. Now, however, the color companies have found a way to encapsulate the pigments so that they don't burn out during firing."

On Operating in a Global Economy: "We're going to have to continue to modernize and upgrade our facilities, and find niche market areas where we can compete. We bend over backwards to give our customers what they want. For example, our factory can go from clay to a white blank and put it in a box in less than eight hours. Our ability to react that quickly, combined with our continued dedication to making high-quality, affordable china, will help us remain competitive."