To know HLC’s history is a colorful destiny

There are many things that make the Homer Laughlin China Company special, but Dave Conley thinks it’s because, at its core, it’s a family business. And not just the Wells family business, either. Dave, who is the Homer Laughlin China Company’s unofficial historian and was — officially — the retail sales manager for the company’s retail division, sees it as his family’s business, too. 

“My brothers worked here, and I had two great-aunts who put in over 100 combined years here,” said Dave. “Everyone who walks through these doors and puts in an honest day’s work thinks of it as their family business as well.”

Multigenerational employment is actually fairly common within the company. It’s this shared sense of history that becomes part of every product Homer Laughlin and its sister company, The Hall China Company, make. The Homer Laughlin and Hall dinnerware plants in Newell, West Virginia, and East Liverpool, Ohio, are home to families of potters whose roots stretch back to each city’s founding. Truly, these families make the HLC Family of Companies unlike any other business.

Dave spent 25 years with HLC as retail sales manager for Fiesta®, the company’s beloved classic rainbow-of-colors dinnerware. He actually retired six years ago, but somehow still works three days a week. His professional experience, paired with all the knowledge and stories he soaked up from his great-aunts and brothers, prepared him for his latest role as unofficial company historian. “It might be the job I’ve enjoyed most,” he said. 

Throughout the day, Dave fields questions regarding how to date various collectibles or what year the company first introduced a certain color. He gets some weird ones, too. “Once I was asked to imagine going back in time and talking to one historical figure from Homer Laughlin’s history. That was a good one. I said W. E. Wells, without any doubt. He’s really, to me, the genius who built this company. Then they asked what I would ask him. I said I’d ask for a raise!”

A popular question is, “What is the rarest piece Homer Laughlin ever produced?” Dave believes it might be what the company calls the Raspberry Bowl, a limited edition Fiesta® piece of which only 500 were made to commemorate the 500-millionth piece of Fiesta produced. 

“We chose the raspberry color because it is extremely hard to produce, explained Dave. “The pigments are highly unstable as well as expensive, so it would have been unfeasible to make a lot of them.”

The company handed out the bowls to dignitaries and VIPs and donated a few to various charity auctions, where they brought thousands of dollars from collectors. Dave said he’s heard that a famous talk show host ended up with one, too. “Somehow, Regis Philbin came into possession of one. He probably doesn’t even know what he has. I always imagine that he uses it to feed his cat.”

The toughest questions to answer are those that are a little more subjective. For example, customers and collectors alike will ask Dave about his favorite Homer Laughlin pattern. He said that one is really difficult to answer, as it’s estimated that the company has produced around 40,000 dinnerware patterns over the years. Dave knows the polite answer would be to say he loves them all equally. The truth is more complicated. 

“We were doing some really beautiful stuff in the 1930s — not that we aren’t now — that really speaks to the Art Deco lover inside of me,” said Dave. “In particular, we did a line of dinnerware that was semi-square, which is square with rounded edges, in a really striking shade of jade green. It’s absolutely gorgeous stuff.”

Callers and emailers sometimes think the company has a vault with samples of everything ever created, and that the Homer Laughlin China Company sits on a gold mine of rare collectibles. Dave gently tries to tell them it’s not true. That it would be physically impossible because, simply, they just don’t have the room. He does, however, have a treasured historical piece of his own. It’s a rare item called a wine container. It stands about 18 inches tall and resembles a large coffee server. The hand-painted beauty dates all the way back to the 1880s.

Dave says it has been gratifying to work at a place that has been beloved by so many people all over the world. He recalled a time the message really hit home: a few years ago, the company hosted a 12-year-old girl through the Make-A-Wish® foundation. The young lady, Candy Haugen, was a fan of Homer Laughlin china because it had been a tradition in her family. She’d grown up with it at her grandmother’s house and in her own home. She wanted to spend the day at the factory seeing how everything is made. 

“She even got to cast some of her own dinnerware,” added Dave. “She had a great time, and every employee had a little gift for her. It was a heartwarming experience for all of us.” 

Which brings us back to the idea of family. The people who use Homer Laughlin China are part of the family, too. 

Like owners of many centenarian businesses with a track record of success, the Wells family has had opportunities to sell the company. The brand has a lot of name recognition worldwide, and that is very valuable. But the Wellses knew that “Made Right Here” — in the U.S., in West Virginia, in these plants, by these workers — is the origin of the brand’s quality. “Slapping our name on a substandard product mass-produced overseas would surely be the beginning of the end of something great,” said Dave. 

“And, more importantly, they take their responsibility to our local community very seriously,” he continued. “We have something exceedingly rare in today’s corporate climate, and we all treasure it. After all these generations, we’re in this together.” 

And that unbreakable commitment of this family company is as durable as, well, the most durable ceramic dinnerware on the planet.

May 2017


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