A shockwave went through Mississippi’s business community recently when it was reported that Gail Pittman Inc. was closing its Ridgeland manufacturing facility and shipping 45 jobs overseas.
The news broke late in the afternoon of Friday, October 17 and made for a long weekend for Gail Pittman, the CEO of her namesake company that has been handcrafting pottery and dinnerware since 1979.
“I didn’t even go to the grocery store that weekend,” Pittman said.
Though all the hand-wringing over the specter of outsourced jobs was for naught — “I’m glad people are sensitive to jobs being sent to China, but that’s not what we’re doing,” Pittman clarified — the Pittman product line will end some time in 2009. Pittman says she will concentrate on expanding her licensing and design deals. She has multi-year contracts with Southern Living magazine and with TV chef and restaurateur Paula Deen.
Pittman started her company at her kitchen table and has seen her signature patterns become a Mississippi institution. Her pottery and tableware have been at the top of bridal registries and Christmas wish lists for nearly three decades.
What made her products unique is that all of them were entirely handcrafted. “That made us special,” Pittman said.
It is also led to its end.
“I have fought and fought and fought for our manufacturing plant,” Pittman said. “But it’s so labor-intensive and not very efficient to keep open. We’re probably the last, if not one of the few, companies like us left.”
Even when the economy’s condition was not the centerpiece of state and national elections, the manufacturing sector had seen a decline in jobs. A sour economic climate accelerates that decline. Pittman admitted that she had planned on announcing her plant’s closing in August but had waited and “hoped for a miracle that never came.”
Staying afloat would have been easier if some of the larger orders from restaurants that featured her dinnerware and corporations that gave it as gifts had not slowed dramatically. “A lot of our big contracts were cancelled, and when that happens, we can’t sit there and wait,” Pittman said. “We’re a privately held company so we couldn’t ride it out. When places start to cut costs, things like ours are the first to go. We had to deal with the facts.”
She met with the facility’s employees last week.
“They handled it better than I did,” she said. “What we do is so special and so unique.”
No firm date has been set for when production will cease at the Ridgeland facility. The company will continue to take orders. After December 1, individual orders will be filled based on available inventory.
“We’re trying to help collectors who have been so loyal to us and help stores that have bridal orders,” Pittman said. “It’s going to be incredibly sad when the original patterns aren’t made anymore, but I don’t want them out there anymore because they’re ours. I want it to be special.”
Marlana Waters, owner of Everyday Gourmet in Jackson, was saddened by Pittman’s announcement. Waters’ store is the premier seller of the products in the Jackson area.
“She has quite a following,” Waters said. “At one time, half our inventory was her stuff.”
Waters said she has seen a decline in demand for some of Pittman’s regular patterns, but added that sales for the Christmas-themed sets have remained strong. “We’ve seen kind of a shift in tastes,” Waters said. “Brides 10 years ago wanted different things than brides do now.
“But we love Gail and what she’s done for our store and for Mississippi. People shouldn’t think that this is all (economic) doom and gloom. We wish her nothing but the best.”
Bette Butler owns Oxford Floral in Oxford and is a good friend of Pittman’s and has been buying her products since Pittman was crafting them at her kitchen table and selling them from her home.
“I would imagine her things will become true collector’s items,” Butler said. “I’m sure people will want to complete their sets.”
Butler also has seen a drop in demand the last year for Pittman’s line, “but for 10 years it was our number one seller. She was the forerunner.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .