Mention Heath Ceramics to design nerds
or high-end restaurateurs, and chances
are they’ll fawn endlessly over its retro,
midcentury tile or brightly glazed stoneware. Heath devotees are nothing new:
Since visionary ceramicist Edith Heath
and her husband started the company in
1948, enthusiasts have included architect
Frank Lloyd Wright and chef Alice Waters.
Yet the company likely wouldn’t be
around today were it not for Catherine
Bailey and Robin Petravic. When the
couple—designers prowling about for
a new project—stumbled into Heath’s
Sausalito, California, showroom in 2003,
the company was struggling, unable to
cover its bills and pay all of its employees.
At the time, Edith was in her early 90s,
with failing health and no succession
plan. Forget diversifcation or modernization—a lone typewriter was still being
used in the offce.
After discovering that Heath was for
sale, the couple immediately wrote the
company a letter. Three months later, the
now-70-year-old business was theirs.
“The whole process was simpler than
buying a house,” Bailey says.
Over the past 16 years, Bailey and
Petravic have brought Heath back from
the brink by evolving everything from its product lines to its ownership structure, striking a delicate balance between respecting
die-hard fans and bringing new ones on board. They’ve shifted
the business from wholesale to direct-to-consumer, built a San
Francisco experiential destination, expanded into the bridal
registry business, and forged creative collaborations with everyone from fashion designers to furniture makers.
But perhaps the couple’s biggest impact, says Bailey, will
come from employing a “slow business” approach to growth
that enables the company to go all in on creativity, quality, and
transparency. Since Bailey and Petravic took over, Heath has
steadily grown from 25 employees to 246 and from $1.2 million
in sales to $30 million, putting it on track to be debt free by the
end of 2020. Earlier this year, they even converted 8 percent of
the company to an ESOP, with the goal of increasing that to 25
percent. Says Petravic, with the stark contrast of San Francisco’s
tech scene bustling around him, “We’re setting things up for
the next generation.”
“We don’t want to be forced to do
things we don’t want to do.”
CREATIVIT Y TRUMPS SCALE
Petravic, Heath’s managing director,
and Bailey, its creative director,
standing in front of Heath’s iconic,
color-saturated tiles. The couple—
designers with a 14-year-old
son—didn’t want to fall into the trap
of increasing volume to meet
demand, which often sacrifces
quality. Instead, at maximum
capacity at both factories, they took
Heath in the opposite direction:
creating limited-release lines sold
only in the showrooms that channel
the experimentation and playfulness of founder Edith Heath.
“It’s the heart and soul of where
we come from,” says Petravic.