Emma Bridgewater

by Angie Boyer

Talking with Emma Bridgewater, I am reminded that there is a stark contrast between creative skills and business skills. It's not a case that 'never the twain shall meet', more that on the occasions when they do, the results can be quite powerful in terms of developing a successful creative business.
Emma speaks from experience, her journey in business began in the mid-1980s when she exhibited at Top Drawer, the leading London giftware trade show. Her company now employs around 200 people on their site in Stoke-on-Trent, who between them have a mix of skills traditional to the industry, such as casting, fettling and decorating..
"In the early stages, everything was in my head and for the first two years that I was in business, it was just me and one other person," she recalls, when I ask her about making the transition from being a micro-business to becoming a major household name.
"It's all in the initial vision - you need to create the DNA of a project very early on in your business life. When I went to Stoke, I had a vision, I knew I wanted to sell on a large scale. If you continually beaver away with your nose close to the grindstone, it will be hard to ever progress from the hand-to-mouth existence.
"So stand back, think about what you want, dream your ideal - what would it look like, visualise it, envisage your idea in a way that you're comfortable with and in a way that's totally honest with yourself. 
"Turning a creative idea into a business is deciding that you have an appetite for the hardness, the decisiveness of it all. Managing people is the next stage of growing your business. The temptation is to back away - to succeed you have to ask whether you have determination to forge on and acknowledge that it will mean massive changes - for yourself and for others."
"Although launching and developing your business can sometimes be almost a natural thing to do," she continues. "My husband Matthew's parents are both designers, my father was an entrepreneur, so for some people it's simply in their genes to do what they do."
Emma originally had her designs made under contract, but within a few years her company acquired their own manufacturing facility and soon expanded into a big 19th century factory in Stoke on Trent. There, in the heart of The Potteries, people use age-old skills to create Emma Bridgewater product ranges that are unquestionably of the 21st Century. Visitors to the factory can watch the whole process, from throwing the clay through to firing and decorating.
"We are incredibly proud of what we do at our factory," says Emma, "our working environment is unusual in that we have resisted the trend to replace people with machines, because we wish to preserve these traditional skills and pass them on for future generations."
Emma Bridgewater designs are instantly recognisable and highly collectable, many are now being adapted for application onto textiles, glass, tin, stationery and melamine.
When I spoke to Emma, she had just returned from the Country Living Show, where she had been mentoring and lecturing. She clearly has a very full and busy life and I asked her how she and Matthew manage to balance running their business alongside looking after their family of four children.
"Everything works really well," she says. "Our children absolutely understand what the business is about, they know that they're built into this, it's something they participate in and they rightfully share in the success. I think they really started to take notice when they realised that their friends' mums were collecting our work!"
Emma Bridgewater as a brand is a fine example of a seed of an idea blossoming and maturing over time into something relevant and important on both a regional, national and international level. The company has maintained its original ethos and integrity, it has sacrificed nothing along the journey of expansion and is where it is today because of Emma and Matthew's self-reliance and determination to realise their vision. So how important has the 'Made in Britain' aspect been to Emma, at a time when many major companies - including those in The Potteries - have been seen to favour cheaper labour overseas.
"For twenty years there was no significant interest in the Made in Britain concept," says Emma."But for the last five years we have been overwhelmed by the response to the British aspect of what we do, with visits by Government Ministers, Royalty... clearly the climate has changed incredibly.
"Some department stores now see the virtues of working with UK companies such as ours that can offer short lead times and a personal service," she continues. "and stores such as Liberty are showing a real commitment, creating a definite buzz around British making.
"The exemption that the government gave to the ceramics industry in the UK regarding climate change and emissions indicates a significant change of attitude towards manufacturing here in the UK."
So what of the future for designer makers in the UK, how does Emma see things working out for young people starting off where she herself was back in the 1980s, have things changed very much?
"I don't think it's a bad climate at all at the moment, if young people come out of training with skills, they should feel confident that they can realise their dreams.
But they should be realistic, if you can't overcome the first round of challenges, there's no point in advocating that you could. Our obsession with risk avoidance makes it hard for some people to make the move. You need to feel hungry for what you want to do. You need to be sure of yourself. I really don't think we can smooth everyone's path."
Emma is a Patron of the Heritage Crafts Association (www.heritagecrafts.org.uk) and speaks enthusiastically about the work they do. "I love what they're doing to support craft skills, it's all too easy for the word 'craft' to simply conjure up images of blacksmithing and thatching, for example, but it's a big, fluid area and not necessarily just olde-worlde crafts. It's great that the HCA are working to promote skills across the board and helping to raise the profile of hand crafted work, that in itself is an interesting challenge
"The way consumers like to engage with new products is through the makers and their stories and with imaginative, top quality photographs of their work. Craft Associations and craftspeople on their own account should commit to promoting the field through strong stories and personal histories."
We could have chatted more, Emma has a wealth of knowledge and experience as a business woman, but she's a lady in great demand, and on this occasion it was young people yet to embark on their chosen career who would have the pleasure of listening to her wise words - as she was heading off to her son's school to talk to the Year 8 students there. How lucky were they!
Emma Bridgewater
Lichfield Street
Stoke-on-Trent ST1 3EJ

Quote: 'Craft Associations and craftspeople on their own account should commit to promoting the field through strong stories and personal histories'

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