Catherine Bailey - Heath Ceramics
words: chelsea sonksen
photographs: grey & elle
As we rounded the corner of 18th Street, we stopped, shocked at the sheer size of the Heath factory. When you think of a ceramics business, you likely picture a modest building with a handful of potters working at their wheels, up to their elbows in clay. You don’t necessarily imagine a three-story building that spans a whole block in San Francisco’s pricey, coveted Mission District. But the size of Heath, and the fact that they still produce their line in the Bay Area, is part of what makes Heath Ceramics such an intriguing and unique business.
Before we can dig into the success and beauty of the Heath brand today, first we need to go back to Heath’s humble beginnings.
Heath Ceramics was founded in 1948 by Edith Heath, a farm girl from just outside Sioux City, Iowa, who moved to San Francisco after her husband got a job with the Red Cross. She was a remarkable woman, especially when one considers the time in which she lived. She was an original and celebrated artist, a successful businesswoman, and an early environmentalist, designing her pieces to be fired at lower-than-normal temperatures and thus saving energy. Edith and her husband Brian ran the business together for nearly 55 years.
Catherine Bailey (Cathy) and her husband Robin Petravic stumbled upon the Heath factory in 2003. At the time, Cathy was running a design consultancy called One & Co., so her first thought was that perhaps she could help the company. After all, she had spent the previous eight years designing everything from shoes at Nike and snowboard boots for Burton to more conceptual projects for Microsoft. And so, she thought this ceramics studio, with its 25 employees, may also benefit from her industrial design expertise.
I imagine some of you may be thinking that a ceramics studio that employs 25 people sounds like it’s actually doing quite well. And it was. Even in the early years, Heath was producing more than 100,000 pieces each year. But Cathy and Robin imagined a future for the company that was brighter still.
After their visit to the factory that day, Cathy and Robin wrote Edith Heath a letter. It said, “We’re designers, we’re very interested in learning more about your business. Maybe we could help,” Cathy told us. “We never heard back. A year went by. Then we asked someone in the store what was happening to the business, and they said, ‘Oh it’s in the process of being sold.’ ” Edith was 92 at the time, and she had developed dementia. She wasn’t able to run the business any longer.
Cathy and Robin hoped that Heath’s new owners were good people and that they’d do something good with the business. But a year later Robin’s brother stopped by and discovered that the deal still hadn’t gone through. The woman in charge of Edith’s estate said there was a prospective buyer, but the offer was complicated. She encouraged Cathy and Robin to propose something quickly if they were interested.
In just three days, the couple drafted a presentation and a loose business plan. The other deal fell through, and Cathy and Robin’s plan turned out to be just what the estate had been looking for. Cathy and Robin got some investment money from friends and family, put in a little capital themselves, and bought the iconic 55-year old brand.
In the early days, Cathy and Robin were tasked with determining which pieces of the business to preserve and which to reimagine. The first thing to consider was the team. Cathy and Robin kept all the original employees on board but quickly realized there were very few people actually running the company. “There was someone looking after dinnerware, somebody looking after tile, and a bookkeeper. That was it. There wasn’t anyone thinking about product. There wasn’t anyone thinking about communications, marketing, or finance beyond bookkeeping. There wasn’t anybody really running the plant, but the product they were making was really wonderful. So I felt like my job was thinking about: how do you create products today that retain the legacy.”
Over the 14 years Cathy and Robin have owned Heath, they’ve done an impressive job growing the company, while fiercely preserving the founding ideals and aesthetic of the brand. Despite the advice from many well-intentioned friends that they should scale the business by moving manufacturing abroad, Cathy and Robin remain steadfast in their resolve to keep production local. “That’s what the company is to us. So we had to get those voices out of our head and decide we were just going to do it. But [producing locally] frames the amount of product you can make and what the line is going to look like.”
One of their early struggles stemmed from the fact Heath was essentially two businesses in one: a tile business and a dinnerware business. “You’re using the same raw material, but other than that [they are entirely different,]” Cathy told us. You can’t even fire the tiles and the tableware in the same kiln because they require different temperatures. But when Cathy and Robin purchased Heath, overall sales were split evenly between tile and dinnerware, so it was clear that both products were essential to the core of the business.
Five years after taking ownership of Heath, Cathy and Robin decided it was time to open a storefront in Los Angeles. “It was December 2008 – the worst moment,” Cathy told us. “We had to get a loan from the bank, which was submitted a week before the Lehman Brothers crisis. But the good thing is – there is only up to go when you are opening a store, right?
”It was so easy to get a contractor, and the bids for doing our construction were amazing, so cheap.” Nowadays, when they look to build new projects, Cathy and Robin can’t help but compare the pricing to that store in LA, knowing nothing will ever be that inexpensive again. It was one of the rare, hidden blessings of expanding in the midst of the recession.
As you scroll through Heath’s website, you’ll notice there are a number of product collaborations in the mix – from a ceramic clock designed with House Industries to a striped throw designed with Alabama Chanin. When I asked Cathy what value collaborations provide, she shared that, for her, collaborations are never about the money. Instead, it’s about exposure for both companies and the opportunity to work together on something really creative.
This collaborative mindset is actualized in the Heath factory as well. There are currently four artist studios within the building: Olli, a textile artist; two jewelers; and Aesthetic Union, a letterpress shop. In 2016, Liz Prueitt and Chad Robertson, the owners of the San Francisco staple, Tartine Bakery, opened a beautiful restaurant at Heath called Tartine Manufactory, serving dishes from banh mi flatbread to a Dungeness crab cake sandwich.
Today, more than 230 people work under Cathy and Robin’s leadership, a team more than nine times larger than when they purchased the business 14 years ago. They’re currently transitioning to an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). “We’ll still have the majority of ownership, but we’ll give the rest to our employees. We’re thinking long-term,” Cathy said. “We don’t want to sell the business.”
“We’d like a little bit of growth to fund the other ideas that we have and to do it well, but this is what we’d like to continue on for the next hundred years. In our culture, that should be okay. It’s okay if other people want to do business other ways, but it should not be thought of as unsuccessful to just want to do your business well and not want to check out and get a giant amount of money, which means the next person will have to run it totally differently.”
What is the inspiration behind your business?
I wanted to be working on a project where the making was closely tied to the design. I believe the culture and craft of small to medium-scale manufacturing is important to preserve. I'm inspired by others who also look deeper into why they are building a business and doing the work they are doing, who understand that more and bigger are not always better, and who know there needs to be more to what you’re doing than just increasing the bottom line and growing sales.
What were the most difficult things you encountered as you built your business and how did you handle them?
Manufacturing is hard and complicated. We've lost vendors as many other manufactures have moved overseas. Finding employees with relevant experience to manage the type of manufacturing we do is almost impossible and finding people to fix machines is increasingly hard. We have to work harder at these things that used to be easier. We have to train people ourselves, and unfortunately, we have to look outside the U.S. for materials when none exist locally.
Though we've grown slowly, we have grown, and sometimes it's difficult to realize how things like internal processes, communications, and rejiggered roles need to evolve. It’s important to make sure we don’t simply rely on answers from the past and instead step back and reassess the problems. I’ve found that listening closely to employees’ observations can help.
What was your professional highlight of the past year? Why was it particularly meaningful?
My personal and professional highlight was being able to take off two months in the summer. It was significant because my husband and I run the company together. Before we took the time off, we prepared everyone at the company, so that while we were gone things continued toward the vision that we set up with our employees.
Our son is twelve, and it was important for us to take this time to spend with our family. We all got much needed perspective and learned how to travel and live together outside of our normal, hectic, task-filled lives.
What three books have influenced you most profoundly?
A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business (Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading) by: Ari Weinzweig
Travels in Alaska by: John Muir
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
What is the best part of your day?
Dinner! My husband is a great cook, and it is so important to take a moment to sit and eat together.
What advice do you have for others who want to start their own business?
Make a vision for a few years in the future. Think about what you want your days to be like, how you want to be spending your time, what you want the business to feel like, how many people you’d like to work with, etc. Then, when reacting to choices or opportunities, pull it out and let it guide your decisions. Carefully make plans that lead you toward your vision.
Do you believe that politics and business should be separate? If not, how have you integrated politics into your business?
We make decisions about what type of community we would like to live in and make business choices that align with that and our values. Some of these are also political issues. We believe everyone is entitled to decent health care. We provide our employees with health care, but do believe that our government should play a bigger role in supporting health care.
What are the unique benefits or challenges that come with building a business in San Francisco?
The biggest challenge is housing. We employ a diverse range of employees, and at every level our employees are challenged with finding housing that works for them and their families. Many have a long commute or decide to move elsewhere, and this affects the long-term stability of our team. It's almost impossible to get people to move to San Francisco from elsewhere in the country.
5 Things I learned from Cathy:
A company can successfully create and sell two different product lines that have entirely different customers.
Every once in a while, sit down with your employees, one at a time, and ask them these three questions: Do you think your team is efficient? Do you think your team is effective? What keeps you up at night?
If you find your portfolio becoming too niche, partner up with another designer or business owner who does different kinds of projects, so your partnership will have a more varied portfolio.
As you grow your team, match up every new employee with someone who has worked for the company for a while. This can be a mentor, or it can be more of a peer role – someone who can, as Cathy says, tell you the best places to grab lunch. This helps integrate new people more quickly and continue to build a strong community within your team.
We as a culture need to rethink our definition of success. Running a sustainable business that prioritizes local making and creates hundreds of local jobs should be considered success – not just selling your company and getting a large payout.