La Verne Magazine
Spring 1998

"La Verne's Small-Town Businesses"


Baking Clay For Pay

by Nune Gazdhyan
photography by Ryan Sones

 


Facundo Leon, Gainey Ceramics plant manager, stands before a 2,000 F kiln loaded with glazed terra cotta. The ceramics will be burned for about eight hours during the final steps of production.

During the late '70s and throughout the '80s, there was a mass exodus of ceramic and pottery plants out of California to Mexico due to the downfall of the economy.

Instead of following along, Gainey Ceramics stayed behind and stuck it out; yet in order to be successful, the company had to make many modifications to its equipment and change the way it produced pottery in order to meet environmental laws. After these environmental upgrades, Gainey became very popular in the ceramic industry. Today, it stands out as the second largest employer in the city of La Verne, according to Chamber of Commerce statistics.

The business was founded 48 years ago by John Gainey. At the time, Gainey worked for a company called Architectural Pottery, which was going out of business and offered him the opportunity to buy the company. With the help of his father, John Gainey purchased the company. That was the beginning of Gainey Ceramics which started out by making water bottles (ollas) and dog bowls.

Now, years later, the company is a leader. "We are the Rolls Royce of the pottery industry," says Steve Gainey, current owner.

Steve Gainey bought the business from his father 10 years ago. Steve has worked at the business from the age of 5; therefore it was natural for him to want to own the business. "My father was ready to retire, and I was ready to take over," says Gainey.

The new ownership also brought on difficulties. The downfall of the economy, coupled with environmental changes and bank loans borrowed to meet those changes caused the business to be less than prosperous. This economic hardship forced the business to produce a new line of products. This was the birth of Gainey's ceramic tile production. "We started making tiles almost out of desperation," says Gainey.

While this didn't seem like the type of product that would be a success, it was. "People love tile. The shapes and colors we offer are very attractive and sell well," says Gainey.

His business has a trusted task to produce quality, attractive tiles for many well-known contractors. This production line branched out the business to a division called Newport Tiles, which is completely dedicated to producing ceramic tiles. "We specialize in shapes and colors," says Gainey. He knows how to keep his customers satisfied by providing them with what they are seeking. "We are constantly upgrading colors and shapes," says Gainey.

While Gainey Ceramics is a success, the process of getting there was hard. The dearth of ceramic businesses in California made it tough to find machinery that produces pottery. Inventing machinery also falls into the hands of Gainey and his company.

Gainey Ceramics is a family oriented business. Among the 85 pottery employees and 37 tile employees, many have been with the business for numerous years. And a few have even been a part of the Gainey team for 30 years. "Here I have the opportunity to go higher, and they pay well," says Rigo Luia, shipper and receiver.

Luia has been a part of the Gainey family for 11 years. He started out by making molds and hand painting ceramics. Gradually, he worked his way up to his current position. While the business is huge, Luia knows all of the employees, and they know him.

"I've worked here for about 9 years. When my relatives came to visit from New York, I brought them down here for a tour," comments Sales Manager Lori Gabaldon.

Gainey Ceramics is doing well now. Their ability to accommodate all types of ceramics and tiles gives them a good name within the business.

The plant and its storage yard are huge. Driving down Arrow Highway, one will see open warehouses displaying rows of colorful pottery ready to be sold to the public and shipped for retail. Besides the open warehouses, there is also an indoor garage-type structure with a high ceiling, which is filled with equipment used to mix, mold, bake, paint, polish and inspect clay. The workers process 300,000 pounds of clay per week, which produces more than 10,000 planters weekly.

There are many employees devoted to their art of molding and shaping clay. "It's like baking a cake," says Gabaldon.

The beauty of the whole production is the fact that each product is hand finished. This is not a small business that produces a few pots and tiles. It is massive, yet each of the products are fully inspected by a person and stamped with an approval seal. Gainey Ceramics is dedicated to making the best products on the market, and with the constant changing of products and tastes, they have to constantly be on the lookout to keep up with the latest trends. This is not an easy task, yet the workers of Gainey somehow manage to do it. "It's a lost art [making pottery], and it's a dying business," says Gabaldon.

With the improvement of productions and the popularity within the industry, the future of Gainey looks promising. While computers are taking over, and technology is the key to the future, Gainey Ceramics still depends on the use of good old-fashioned hands.



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