The Most Difficult Things

1 Mark Goertzen’s tea bowl, 5 in. (14 cm) in length, stoneware, wood fired to cone 12, 2014.

 

In the Beginning
When I opened my full-time studio in 1981 I envisioned, perhaps naively, that I would be able to work solo without employees for my entire career. I planned to have retail space through which I would sell everything I made. I believed customers would discover me and my work. I thought that with a liberal arts education I’d be able to run a pottery, without having had any specific academic training or experience in business. And I definitely did not believe the experts who said that making money and making a living were short-term motivators.

What I discovered differed from my expectations. I found that I needed employees to achieve the studio of my dreams. Having a full-scale retail space did not necessarily translate into the ability to sell all my works. I realized, too late I suppose, that I hadn’t simply opened a pottery: I’d opened a business. As such, I needed to learn how to successfully make and market my works, and profitably run a business. And when I finally did accomplish all of this, I discovered that the experts were right: money is only a short-term motivator.

The most difficult thing in the early years of establishing a successful pottery was having to admit that almost all of my initial assumptions were completely wrong.

2 Dick Lehman’s thrice wood-fired vase, 12 in. (31 cm) in height, white stoneware, wood-fired to cones 10, 12, and 14, in that order, 2013. 3 Dick Lehman’s glazed and side-fired tsubo, 11 in. (29 cm) in height, white stoneware, fired to cone 9 in reduction, 2015. 4 Mark Goertzen’s bottle, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, white stoneware, wood fired to cone 12, 2015. 5 Mark Goertzen’s mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, porcelain, wood fired to cone 12, 2015.

 

And Now, Having Employees
The excitement, adrenaline, and endorphins generated in begin-ning a new business soon gave way to the innate needs of my own temperament: I don’t do all that well in solitude. I thrive when I work with and around others. I find meaning in teaching and enabling. Coaching and nurturing others “scratches the teaching itch” that is part of my psyche.

So I added employees. I discovered that being required to meet a payroll made me a better business person, coach, and potter. And I utilized employees in a variety of ways. First, I taught them to make the works that I had designed. I wanted them to learn and be competent in the studio (my) aesthetic. Later, as employees matured in their abilities (and I matured in the ability to understand that my ideas weren’t always the best or superior ideas), I involved employees in design tasks to improve existing products, and to create new products that reflected or echoed the studio-aesthetic. Ultimately the studio made and marketed a product line of more than 100 different (mostly wheel-thrown) items.

As the product line increased and blossomed, I searched for a way to openly credit this employee contribution to the whole of the studio-aesthetic. Design credit was acknowledged, and whomever actually made/threw the piece would have his/her personal mark on the pot. Also a more generic “studio stamp” would be on each piece.

As time passed I discovered that the optimal studio staffing environment for my business was (including myself) three persons, or three FTE (full-time equivalents). So there were three people, each having major responsibility for ⁄ of the 100-piece studio product line, but each with the ability to successfully produce at least 80 to 85% of the line.

With the exception of Saturdays, we employed no sales staff. Those of us who made the works, actually sold the works to the 75,000 customers who visited us each year. That meant training all staff not only in how to make the work, but also how to sell the work we made. Sellers aren’t born–they are made, they are taught. And conscientious, ethical, engaged sellers are an even rarer breed. Generating a “studio-ethic” was an activity in which we all participated, and which at its best brings the rewards of customer loyalty, community service, relationships of integrity, and life-long friendships.

6 Mark Goertzen’s pitcher, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, white stoneware, gas fired to cone 9 in reduction, 2015. The Michiana aesthetic: 7 David E. Gamber’s cup, 3 in. (10 cm) in height, stoneware,wood fired to cone 11, 2015. 8 Eric Strader’s textured mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, stoneware, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2015. Photo: Dick Lehman. 9 Greg Stahly’s Scribble Cup, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, terra cotta, slips, underglazes, fired to cone 1, 2015.

 

But We All Needed More
It was a rush, I think, for all of us to be successfully making, marketing, and selling a line of products that were beautiful, well-designed, and customer responsive. But we needed more. We all needed space to breathe to work on pieces that went beyond the studio-aesthetic—our individual “non-production” pots; to develop our personal-aesthetic, to nurture ourselves through attending conferences, workshops, travel, exhibitions, additional schooling and career development. And we needed time to attend to the needs of our families, hobbies, and friends.

Out of these needs came a fairly rigorous and disciplined yearly planning process for both the studio, and for each employee. For the studio, the goals and objectives focused on targets for production, sales, and efficiencies. For me and for the employees, the planning ultimately led to four-day work weeks, an open studio for all employees where the costs associated with the making of their own work was subsidized by the studio, in-studio marketing opportunities for employees, paid vacations, paid conference and workshop attendance, and weekly subsidized development time for all studio members. In addition there were negotiable sabbatical-leave-times for travel and refreshment for many employees.

I created the opportunity for employees to sell their own personal work from the showroom, to receive retail-feedback on their own work directly from customers, all while realizing 65% of the sale price.
Building all this into the yearly planning and, perhaps more importantly, yearly evaluation created accountability that made us all more likely to meet our goals. General employee satisfaction grew. Staff turnover decreased.

But still, certainly the most challenging and most difficult thing for my employees, was to productively utilize the time set aside for the development of their own personal aesthetic, while at the same time making daily works that comprised someone else’s aesthetic. Switching gears from studio aesthetic to personal aesthetic was a huge challenge. While I worked to assist where I could, I continued to have enormous respect for those employees who found ways to develop their personal voice, while singing another’s tune. Those who stayed, figured it out. I have so much respect and gratitude for the contributions and successes of David Gamber, Mark Goertzen, Moshe Hodges, Lane Kaufmann, Peter Olsen, Todd Pletcher, Greg Stahly, Eric Strader, Jeff Unzicker, and Tom Unzicker.

10 Jeff Unzicker’s mug, 5 in. (13 cm), stoneware, wood fired to cone 10, 2012. 11 Lane Kaufmann’s celadon mug, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10, 2012. 12 Moshe Hodges’ cup, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, white stoneware, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2014. Photo: Dick Lehman. 13 Peter Olsen’s cup, 3 in. (8 cm) in height, dark stoneware, white slip, clear glaze, wood fired to cone 10 and cooled in reduction, 2015. Photo: Brad Curran.

 

The First Long-Term Employee
While I may have lost count, it is my estimate that over the course of 30 years, I employed more than 50 people. Of that number, roughly a dozen went on to full- or near-full-time clay work in some form. Their jobs now comprise the following: full-time and part-time professors/teachers; full-time potters; executive director of a community clay studio; part-time potters; and potters who craft a full-time-career in clay by working for other potters, collaborating with studio mates, and selling through art fairs. Former employees are spread out from Seattle to New Jersey.

Over the three decades that I owned my production and retail studio, most employees stayed on for more than a year, many for 2 years, some for up to 5, and one, Mark Goertzen, for over 20 years.

Goertzen came to the studio thinking that he might stay a year or two, and then go on to create his own studio. Instead he stayed. Goertzen recalls, “I had too much fun working in the studio and benefited from the security of a regular pay check. I asked myself, why should I move on if I am enjoying my job and making a living at it?” He became, and is, a master potter in his own right. His longevity and durability have had a significant–perhaps even profound–impact on the direction, success, and viability of the studio.

At the point where Goertzen had invested a decade in the studio, I began to wonder how I might more appropriately and honestly represent his contributions to our customers and to our community. On the advice of a friend, I proposed to Goertzen that I change the DBA (“doing-business-as”) name of the studio from Dick Lehman, Potter, to Lehman-Goertzen Pottery. He agreed. I was pleased. And while Goertzen did not own a share of the studio, his contributions were being publicly acknowledged by the name change. The name change also embodied the beginnings of a succession plan that later came to fruition.

14 Todd Pletcher’s mug, 4 in. (11.5 cm) in height, wood-fired stoneware, cone 12, 2015. Photo: Dick Lehman. 15 Tom Unzicker’s cup, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, white stoneware, tenmoku glaze, wood fired to cone 12, 2015.

 

And Then
Fast-forward a few years. Life happened: I got cancer; Goertzen took an increasingly larger role in running the day-to-day workings of the studio while I received treatment, and while I achieved remission. But the cancer returned, and for me there came first one stem-cell transplant, then another. My health was deeply compromised, my contribution to the studio all but missing, my survival uncertain. Without a doubt, the most difficult thing for me was day-to-day survival. For Goertzen, the most difficult thing was learning, while I was unavailable, how to run the studio on his own as an employee.

Ultimately, and far sooner than I’d hoped, I faced a crossroads decision. With my health uncertainties, I needed to either sell the studio or to close it. Gratefully for all concerned, the hoped-for succession plan was achieved: in late 2010, Goertzen and his wife Suzanne decided to purchase the studio.

Since then there have been, no doubt, a series of “most difficults” for Goertzen, and for (the now) Goertzen Pottery. Not the least of which was concern for customers’ needs and the delicate sense of timing in the transition from my studio aesthetic to his studio aesthetic.

But an even more important and difficult issue was the element of customer loyalty. When the studio was mine, our customers loved my work and, in reality, many loved me, cared for me, supported the studio with loyalty and patronage during difficult times. Goertzen has navigated this most difficult challenge with a winsome and confident spirit. Our customers, no, his customers, now love his work, and in fact, they love him too. And while this transition may have been made easier by the degree to which he had already helped to shape the direction of the studio and its aesthetic, it is a genuine credit to him that he has successfully made the studio–in all its expressions and implications–his own.

Goertzen continues to give time and energy to his own non-production work; he is disciplined about nurturing the continued development of his personal-aesthetic: testing, experimenting, and mastering. But not only a master potter, he is now an exceptional employer, teacher, and coach, with a growing list of young potters who have worked with and for him.

And with the help of Dante (his wood-fired mini-gama), Goertzen is a leader in the Michiana (Michigan and Indiana) wood-fired community. So far as I know, Goertzen was the first to notice and name the Michiana wood-fired aesthetic: Multi-colored, heavily layered, crystal-infused, glossy, and drippy pots (see page 52). Northern Indiana and southern Michigan, not previously much known on the ceramics-and-wood-fire map, is now becoming a destination place for those interested in long wood-fire, natural-ash effects, due in no small measure to Goertzen’s contribution and leadership.

Not unlike much of the rest of life, a clay career’s “most-difficults” quite often morph into life’s most valuable, most enduring, most satisfying experiences. After more than three decades in clay, that’s my story and I’m grateful. To learn more about Mark Goertzen’s pottery, visit http://goertzenpottery.com.

the author Dick Lehman, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly magazine, lives and works in Goshen, Indiana, and is a member of Ceramics Monthly’s editorial advisory board. In the last 5 years Dick’s health has improved and he is working full-time in a new personal studio in Goshen. You can learn more about him and his current work at www.dicklehman.com.

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