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Sky’s the limit for Earthworks

Sky’s the limit for Earthworks Davis Spieler of Earthworks showing off one of his creations.

By Marlon Madden | Mon, November 05, 2012 - 12:01 AM

THE POTTERY INDUSTRY’S growth potential is huge, according to  Earthworks’ owner and chief  executive officer David Spieler.

He told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY that the 36-year-old company was constantly repositioning  to meet changes in the various  industries, especially tourism,  and other aspects of development  on the island.

“The business expanded almost exponentially as the tourist industry expanded through the late 1970s through to the 1990s. As those were tourism-boom years for Barbados, they were expansion years rather than the consolidation years that we are now seeing,” he said.

Despite a sweeping decline in the island’s tourism product recently, Spieler said he believed there were still a number of opportunities for the pottery industry within that critical sector.

“The market has been expanding for so long in tourism and craft that we really had it sort of made for a long time. Now it is a hard time for Barbados but we still think there is a niche market for craft producers in Barbados like ourselves as long as you are prepared  to produce that high quality product,” said Spieler.

“The market is still large. The number of people coming into Barbados is in the hundreds of thousands who actually stay here for more than one day. Being able to access and get our product to those people, we haven’t even begun to do that.

“We have only begun to scratch [the surface], a very minute percentage. Less than one per cent of people actually come to visit Earthworks.

“I think that the market is almost limitless. So if you continue to brand yourself and improve the quality  of your product, then the sky is  the limit,” he explained. Earthworks currently has 23 employees.

The Edgehill Heights, St Thomas company uses locally sourced clay to produce decorative and functional items ranging from dinnerware, mugs, jugs and vases to plaques, trinkets and souvenirs. Those items can be found across the island in gift shops including the Flower Forest Botanical Gardens, Duty Free Caribbean and Island Craft.

Spieler, who took over the business from his mother about 24 years ago,  said his customer base was made up mostly of tourists. However, he would  like to see more locals take advantage  of the variety of products.

“The local market is there [but]  it is below five per cent of what we  sell . . . . It consists of mainly wholesale customers and a very small proportion  of sales for wedding lists, custom orders and name mugs, and upmarket locals  may wish to buy locally produced functional wares – and that is  a market that could grow,”  explained the former teacher.

“We would like to grow it because we do see a lot of local customers going to the imported produced ware shops, but we would like to see a lot of the locals come here instead because our products are [just] as good.  Sometimes we feel bad because we think people prefer imported goods over local for no good reason,” added Spieler.

Asked if he believed the pottery industry would be around in Barbados  for years to come, Spieler simply  said he hoped so.

“Our business is a sustainable one  that can operate without me. In that respect, the long-standing staff should  be able to continue. A lot of businesses  fall by the wayside [with] the loss of a manager. I would say the bigger threat now is the economy,” he commented.

Canadian-born Spieler also said the company was keen on innovation.

“We expanded our range from  small trinkets and ornamentals to  the functional range during the time  that I have been here and we continue  to expand, modify and innovate  design-wise, shape-wise and  quality-wise,” he said.

Without going into detail, he added: “We intend to bring on new shapes over the course of the next 12 months . . . , expand the range and designs and do things that give us latitude and improve our product.”

However, Spieler said his company  does have a few challenges, such as consistent high quality and managing production, sales, and cash flow.

“The market is very, very challenging for a number of reasons; the cash flow  of the small boutiques that take our work in the Caribbean islands has diminished the same as anybody else’s.

“At the same time, the freight rate  has doubled and the cost to export has gone up. For that reason we have lost a lot of the middle-market customers – the wholesale customers we have traditionally been selling to throughout the Caribbean.

“[But] we have managed to retain  two or three of the good ones in the upmarket areas,” said Spieler.

He pointed out, however, that while  the export market was depressed at the moment, tourists making purchases  and leaving the island was also  a form of export.

“Foreigners who visit Barbados  and use a foreign credit card, that  is as good as an export. And, in fact,  that type of export – which brings  the same foreign exchange to our  treasury – is derived without having  to pack and ship,” he explained.

Spieler said staff were aware  of the current economic environment  and have managed to keep up productivity while not compromising  on quality.

“It is not easy. Every year has  been a little harder for small businesses and staff know these things. Thank the Lord we have managed to keep head above water up until [now],” he said.

Earthworks started as a one-room studio comprising the clay mixing, firing and display, but grew over the years to house each component in its own area  and include an art gallery and café.

Spieler said he took over from his ageing mother in the late 1980s when  he realized the business was growing.

“But I didn’t like to get my fingernails dirty and I was a good teacher in a  good job at Harrison College . . . .  I really did love my five years in the teaching profession but I took the  plunge to work in the family business  and it worked out,” added Spieler.

He believes Earthworks is now  a household name. He said for many  years people did not know where  to find it but by marketing and producing high quality, it became a local brand people came to “know, love  and trust”.

“There is nothing like a good local customer who remains loyal and we  can continue to serve piece by piece  and year by year,” he said, adding  that they would soon introduce  new-sized mugs.

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