‘I wish I’d been a bad risk to the banks 20 years ago’

A pottery business spun out of control in 2008, losing €1,500 a day.

Its owner, Stephen Pearse, is more modest these days, as Vincent Ryan discovers

Stephen Pearse: ‘I said I’m not going to let the banks stop me, I’ll stop when I’m ready. My father started this and the show goes on.’

Throwing a pot is an art form in which the potter most balance the weight of the clay against gravity or the spinning pot will collapse on itself. Stephen Pearse may be a master potter but his business spun out of control in 2008.

He was losing €1,500 a day when his brother came home from the US and examined the accounts. He was forced to close the doors of the pottery business that his father had founded.

“I got my brother to come over from America and just look at all the numbers with me. I’d spent nearly two years trying to figure out how we could cut our costs in a way that wouldn’t interfere with the quality of the pottery and made sense in terms of employees and everything. My brother took one look at the accounts and said, ‘Stephen you have to close’. The choice wasn’t there because he said, ‘you are losing €1,500 a day’,” said Pearse.

When his pottery empire was at its peak he had a workforce of 180 people between his headquarters in Shanagarry and Carrigaline pottery. Carrigaline pottery was hit badly by the global slump that followed the 9/11 attacks and by the time the closure came in 2008 there was less than 50 people employed.

The companies had a shortfall of €277,810 and, if it had been wound up, its liabilities would have been in the region of €1.48m.

The closure of the company left Pearse wondering what he should do next. He considered starting a whole new enterprise but he says that his stubborn side got the better of him.

“My stubborn side came out and I said I’m not going to let the banks or anybody stop me, I’ll stop when I’m ready to stop. My father started this and the show goes on.”

If took him two years but in 2010 the furnaces to fire the glaze on the pottery were re-lit.

When the doors re-opened there was pent-up demand from customers who had broken or chipped their plates in the interim two years and needed to complete their sets again. But not everybody was happy, Pearse said.

“There were a couple of people who were very cross because they figured if we hadn’t opened up again the day would come when they could sell the stuff for an awful lot of money on, not bay watch, but eBay. The poor things have had to put up with me coming back again,” he said.

His aims are more modest this time as he doesn’t want to grow to the size that the business got to in the boom days. The goal is to get the business to a sustainable level without having to rely on the banks.

“I am never going to get big again. I’m never going to borrow one cent from the banks if I can help it. We have no borrowings at all at the moment because no one will lend to me because I’m a bad risk. It is great being a bad risk. I wish I had become one 20 years ago.”

Although he admits to being unable to send a text and at one stage viewing computers as being responsible for the death of conversation, he has come around to the idea and now believes it will be key to helping grow the brand again.

“We are really focusing on the internet. I always thought laptops were the death of human relationships, but what I have realised in the last six months, I’ve realised that actually Facebook was invented for me because I can joke and play with our customers and they can tell me stuff,” he said.

Pearse is launching a website in the next week to target the US market which he expects will be one of the company’s biggest revenue generators.

“Internet sales haven’t rocketed because we still have a lot to learn. This year they will probably be about four times what they were last year. It is still under €100,000 but we have a new site especially for America that has just been done.

“It is going online next week. As soon as we iron out the problems with that and we are able to speak directly with the Americans and speak their language I expect that in two years’ time that will be our biggest sale,” he said.

Physical shops are still important, however, and although the number of stockists has fallen from 220 before the closure to a still impressive 150, Pearse is still looking at expansion.

He was amazed at the success of a pop-up shop they established in Kildare Village. “It is like a parallel universe where women are competing with each other to spend more.”

He is also looking to England where he said the rents are cheaper than in Ireland and where he is relatively well known. He is considering opening a shop in Bath.

It’s a smasher

* Stephen’s smashing weekend: “On 30 September I’m going to have what I’m going to call Stephen’s smashing weekend. We are going to invite people to bring their old chipped crockery down and smash it. They can break them against a wall and then I will give them a cake dish with plaster of paris and they can make mosaics and we will replace the pottery at a huge discount.”


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