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Mississippi's Gail Pittman is Successful Artist, Entrepreneur

“God gives you a double bucket of ignorance when you need it,” said Gail Pittman, reflecting on her first years in the pottery business. “I started out in 1980 painting pre-made clay bowls on a revolving spice rack in my kitchen in Jackson and eight years later moved into a 1,500-square-foot studio, bought my first commercial kiln, hired three employees — one of whom was my mother, who couldn’t work on Tuesdays because of bridge club, and took out a $10,000 loan. But for ignorance, I would probably have run the other way.”

Gail Pittman
Gail Pittman

Pittman, founder and president of Gail Pittman Inc., did plenty of fast moving, however, as she built her company into the largest manufacturer of hand-painted pottery in the United States.
“After my husband John gave me a kiln, my greatest aspiration was to show at the Canton (Mississippi) Flea Market,” said Pittman. “A crossover point came when Carol Puckett, founder of the Everyday Gourmet, asked to carry my pottery. It’s one thing to create products and sell them when you can, but to be responsible for delivering on time — then it becomes a business.”
Pittman’s colorful designs on bowls and platters expanded to dinnerware sets in multiple patterns. Her timing was impeccable. “Hand-painted pottery was just beginning to be imported from Portugal and Italy,” said Pittman, “but nobody else in the U.S. had gone to commercial scale using the collector quality techniques I was using.”
She quickly outgrew the 1,500-square-foot studio created in 1988, built a 7,000-foot studio in 1991 with an investor who took on a business management role, and by 1998 expanded to a 60,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. “Madison County and the state were very supportive of a woman-owned business that was creating jobs—150 employees at our peak. Our first bond issue provided several hundred thousand dollars to get started, and we added to it as we expanded.”
Pittman, who doesn’t believe in luck, says her grandmother told her, “Luck comes from Lucifer, but good fortune comes from God.” Call it luck or not, double-barreled good fortune catapulted Gail Pittman pottery into the national marketplace. First, after a 1998 trip abroad Pittman did the hard work of creating a palette of colors from Italy for a new Tuscan-inspired collection.
Then on January 3, 1999 Barry Shier who worked for casino mogul Steve Wynn flew her by private plane to Biloxi, where his Beau Rivage casino was being built. On a hard-hat walk-through, the casino president showed Pittman La Cocina restaurant and said, “We want to use your dishes.”
Pittman said, “Our pottery isn’t restaurant-grade; it will chip.” He countered, “I don’t care about that.” Pittman said, “It’s expensive. It’s hand-painted.” He said, “I don’t care about that either.”
Beautiful Gail Pittman serving pieces
Beautiful Gail Pittman serving pieces

Pittman asked, “How many pieces do you need?” His answer, “Ten thousand.” Pittman replied, “We can do that. No problem,” noting that her business partner was almost on the floor. “When does it open?” asked Pittman. “In six weeks,” he said. “What kind of restaurant is it?” asked Pittman. “It’s home-style Italian, and we want sun-drenched Tuscan colors.”
Since Pittman had already created an appropriate color palette, her company “made that order in six weeks.” Her business grew exponentially with orders from casinos like Caesars Palace and Trump resorts. In 2001 Southern Living started a direct sales company with Pittman’s pottery under the “Southern Living at HOME” brand at the heart of its catalog. Sales rocketed, as did royalties paid to Pittman, soon to become the company’s creative director.
“When you build something big enough to handle our volume, you have to feed it,” said Pittman. Good fortune turned its back when the “18-month recession that’s been going on for four years” hit. Among the bad news, six casino restaurants cancelled large orders. “Big projects that kept our plant open were going away faster than we could keep up with them,” said Pittman.
Pittman closed her plant in 2009, a decision most painful to her for the loss of jobs for loyal employees. She licensed the Gail Pittman brand to Sidco Worldwide, a manufacturer in Nashville, Tenn. “Now I design and sign and have the last judgment on quality, but am out of manufacturing,” said Pittman. “To come full circle is such a gift and a blessing.”
It’s a long way from the kitchen table to your own manufacturing plant. How did you make that leap?
I never really thought of it as jumping the fence. It was just the next step.
Gail Pittman place setting
Gail Pittman place setting

Is there a “most influential” person in your life?
My husband, John, is rock solid and helped me develop a business plan, which showed me how things work, and it became a road map.
What’s the best business advice you ever received?
Joe Sanderson is one of the most inspirational people I know — I’ve been on the board of Sanderson Farms since 2002. Joe said, “You run your business the same way in good times as you do in bad times—and the balance sheet is the most important part.”
How have your revenues trended?
I generated about $75,000 annually when I was working out of my home. At our peak we were at $7 million or $8 million.
What was your biggest challenge?
After we delivered the initial Beau Rivage order, I promised to make the product restaurant grade. Our engineer from Stoke- on-Trent in England said, “Gail, the reason no one makes more chip-resistant pottery is because it’s very hard.” I thought it would take three months; it took almost a year. That was one of the longest, darkest valleys we ever walked. What I had asked for completely reworked every single thing in the plant—colors, equipment, the glazing process. It cost almost a million dollars to make the change.
Did you ever borrow too much?
There were scary times, like when we had a bond payment of $75,000 due the same day as a payroll of $160,000.
How about competition?
We’re in a one-world economy now, and competition increased from imports. And if you’re successful, there will always be people who try to copy you. It broke my heart the first time an employee tried it. Then I decided to compete by focusing on the future and changes in the way people buy and how things are made.
How is your licensing arrangement with Sidco working out?
About 35 percent of our sales are through the Internet, others through retail stores. I also design for corporate and private label projects. We’re growing steadily.
You value giving back to the community. What stands out?
We built a Habitat for Humanity house and over time raised almost a million dollars for Habitat with the sale of Christmas ornaments and Easter eggs. Every time I go to the Jack- son airport I hear, “Are you the egg lady?”
Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
As you grow you have to teach other people what you know, and that’s hard for many entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a software designer or a game designer—you have to share in order to grow. You still have to be vigilant over quality or you can be ruined.
[dhr]
An excerpt from Polly Dement’s book, Mississippi Entrepreneurs. Published by Cat Island Books LLC and distributed by University Press of Mississippi. Mississippi Entrepreneurs, which includes profiles of over 80 of the state’s diverse and visionary enterprise creators, can be ordered online at www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1642 or purchased from independent book stores.

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