RIDGELAND — It may seem like an overnight success at Gail Pittman Inc., but it took two decades to get there.
Gail Pittman, founder of Gail Pittman Inc., a multi-million dollar operation that makes and markets hand-painted dinnerware and accessories worldwide, who was recently selected as one of Mississippi’s outstanding entrepreneurs, said it’s taken a long time to be considered an overnight success.
“It’s involved a lot of hard work, but it’s been a fun and interesting journey,” Pittman said.
An early achiever, Pittman graduated from the University of Mississippi in three years instead of the traditional four with an education degree and, for several years, was a schoolteacher at Boyd Elementary School in Jackson, the same school she attended as a child. When she learned that her second grade teacher had been promoted to principal, that sealed the deal, she said. “I went in to substitute, and came out with a year-round job.” After several years of teaching, she quit to stay home and raise a family.
Long accustomed to an early and fast-paced routine, Pittman didn’t sit still long and started painting dinnerware, using her kitchen table as a studio. She would rise at 4 a.m. and paint until 7 a.m., when she would clear the table, make breakfast, wake the children and send them off to school. Then, she’d clear the dishes and start painting again.
“I had to get in so many hours of painting, and as a wife and mother with so many responsibilities, I had to segment portions of time to devote to it,” she said. “It was good training for what was ahead.”
In 1987, when her business outgrew her home, Pittman borrowed $10,000 from the bank, bought her first commercial kiln and moved into a 1,800-square-foot commercial facility.
“Moving out for the first time was something of a shock,” she said. “It put a different slant on the business and made me think of it in a new light. Fortunately, our children, Sonny (now 27) and Natalie Gail (now 22), were growing up and more independent so I had extra time to devote to the pottery.”
Soon after, Thomas Maley, a close friend, joined the company as a corporate partner and the company was incorporated. Pittman shed her image as a former schoolteacher and stay-at-home mom for that of an artist and entrepreneur. In 1989, operations were moved into a 7,800-square-foot facility. Since 1992, the current facility has grown to nearly 50,000 square feet.
Products made in the company’s Ridgeland facility are distributed to more than 350 high-end gift, specialty and kitchen accessory shops in the U.S. and Canada. Her first client? The Everyday Gourmet in Jackson, where an entire room is devoted to Gail Pittman merchandise at its County Line Road store.
The Gail Pittman Collection includes more than 214 pieces in 40 patterns, from traditional to contemporary, that mix with matching and coordinating dinnerware and home accessories. About four new designs are added each year. The most popular patterns have been reproduced on paper products, bath accessories and home furnishings. She’s chatting with vendors about broadening the home furnishings line and is contemplating “one versus many” vendors, she said. Her collection includes a licensing arrangement for wall coverings with Wallquest of Wayne, Pa., and rugs from Tinnin Oriental of Jackson.
Gail Pittman products were recently added to The Horchow Collection catalog, a move she said “uplifts and enhances our product and the Gail Pittman brand. Any customer who sees the catalog will be looking for more Gail Pittman items in local gift and home accessories stores, which will support our local retailers.”
When Beau Rivage in Biloxi, a Mirage Resorts property, opened last spring, four new Gail Pittman patterns were unveiled in the property’s upscale Italian La Cucina restaurant and sold exclusively in resort gift stores.
“I firmly believe that God prepares us for the next step,” she said. “When I look back, I see where that has happened over and over again. For example, the Beau Rivage project taught us how to work with a large corporation, where one person is not the ultimate decision-maker. Now that we’re getting ready to promote our products in other markets, and expand our product line, we’re more prepared.”
Creating a Gail Pittman piece of pottery involves as many as 13 highly-trained craftspeople, with each piece designed by Pittman and made from the company’s own clay and molds. The molds are created by the company’s own modeler who was trained and worked in Stoke-on-Trent, England, home to some of the world’s most famous names in fine china and pottery. All pieces are individually hand-painted by one of 30 artisans, fired in a kiln, then glazed and fired again to enhance the vibrancy of the colors. The entire operation employs 110.
“One reason the business is successful, I think, is because I do what I do best — design pottery — and let others do what they do best,” she said.
The self-taught Southern artist said the most surprising aspect of growing a business has been the unexpected recognition, such as when Inc. magazine ranked her company as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the U.S. in 1993. Or when she found out that she had been selected as one of Mississippi leading entrepreneurs.
“I was very flattered and appreciative, but also very surprised,” she said. “When you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like work.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.