A Fiesta family: A new spin on a classic pottery business - WFMJ.com News weather sports for Youngstown-Warren Ohio

A Fiesta family: A new spin on a classic pottery business

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NEWELL, W.Va.- For the first time in Homer Laughlin China's 142 year history, there's a woman at the reins.  The largest remaining pottery in the U.S. is moving forward with the first female president and new technology.

The metamorphosis of dull slabs of clay into a kaleidoscope array of dinnerware called Fiesta continues to lift spirits since its inception in 1936 at Homer Laughlin.

"We just got through a long gray winter and I'll tell you using Fiesta in winter really helps keep your spirits up," said Director of the Museum of Ceramics in East Liverpool Sarah Webster Vodrey.

Pottery production runs deep in the greater East Liverpool area along the Ohio River, dating back to the 1840s.

"So I'd say the clay, the river and those hard working immigrants were the wonderful combination that helped us grow into the pottery capital that we still are," she said.

Now Homer Laughlin is the largest pottery left in the area and in the U.S., employing close to 1100 workers.

The 142-year-old business continues to march on but for the first time with a female president and owner.

"The barriers are down, I have to honestly say that but there are always obstacles," said president and owner Liz McIlvain.

Since 1897 the company has been passed down from son to son within the Wells and Aaron families.  In March, McIlvain succeeded her brother Joseph Wells III, who is now chairman of the board.

"There are many times that a woman isn't taken quite as seriously as a man but I feel I've been in the industry for several years and in the last 6 years I've been out with the sales folks making calls and I have gained my credibility," Liz McIlvain said.

It's a balancing act between work and family, especially with her travel schedule.

"My youngest daughter had emergency surgery and my husband had to take care of everything and he did a wonderful job and it was very difficult for me knowing this happened and I was unable to be there," Liz MvIlvain said.

Similar to the ups and downs of any family, Fiesta has had a turbulent time. The line was discontinued in the early 1970's and reintroduced in 1986. Liz McIlvain said it's been a huge hit ever since.

Now the groundwork is being laid for the fifth generation to take over, as McIlvain's eldest daughter, Katie, is learning the ropes.

"I would love to take over for my mom one day.  It's quite a task and I respect everything she does.  It's a tough job but I truly aspire to do that one day too," Katie McIlvain said.

Like the dishes that have been passed on from daughter to daughter among families since the 1930's, the business aspect is now coming full circle.

Another new direction for the company is the 3D printing process. The innovative technology is being researched in Youngstown and it is already in use at Homer Laughlin.

A 3D printer builds a model of a Homer Laughlin China plate layer by layer.

"The speed of us being able to take a two dimensional drawing or a concept and produce it and have it in a customer's hand where they can touch it, feel it use it," said senior modeler and digital designer at Homer Laughlin John Stoakes.

This way workers can send models to prospective restaurant and hotel customers by the next day, instead of what used to take three weeks to a month by hand.

"Some jobs are all hand modeling, some jobs are a combination of the two and some are just 3D printing and then setting up for machines based off the 3D print," Stoakes said.

Homer Laughlin still makes Fiesta ware plates the old fashioned way.  One machine in particular has been in existence since 1939.  Even the molds on it are handmade.

"From the clay to getting the product off of the machine onto a truck, so we can get it to the next step in the process, it's pretty much still hands on," said production supervisor at Homer Laughlin Jim Savina.

The choreography of shaping the plates to spraying the glazes dances with workers by the machines' sides.

Savina says a concern among the close to 1,000 workers at this plant, has been new technology taking over the old process but this machine still runs every day.

"In our local valley here we employ a lot of people.  It's nice your neighbor works here,  myself I'm third generation," Savina said.

The plates with defects don't go to waste they're recycled here.

"My favorite saying in a restaurant when you hear someone drop plates or a tray of plates is job security.  Someone's got to make new ones," Savina said.

Generations of families working in the plant that has some new twists and turns but with the same end product: an American made classic.

 

 

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