Reinventing the Kiln

Jan 29, 2013

Jim Skutt left a job in the computer industry to run a kiln manufacturing business started by his grandfather and uncle more than 50 years ago. (Photo: Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

“It is true of the nation, as of the individual, that the greatest doer must also be a great dreamer.”—Theodore Roosevelt

A ceramic pot is a lot like a small business. They both start with raw materials and have to be molded into a creation. They come in all shapes and sizes. And if it’s a very nice pot—or small business—it can be passed down from family member to family member.

That’s certainly the case with Skutt Ceramic Products of Portland, Oregon, a third-generation family business founded more than 50 years ago. Before creating kilns, Ralph Skutt and his son Neil manufactured stainless steel yacht hardware under the name Skutt and Son. When the stainless steel supply was wiped out by the Korean War, the two founders were debating what to do next. “They were sitting around the kitchen table trying to figure out how to put food on it,” says Neil’s nephew and current company president Jim Skutt.

A neighbor who was an amateur potter suggested that they make a ceramic kiln without hot spots. At that time, all kilns were square or rectangular because they were merely industrial kilns adapted for home use. Neil researched historic kilns at the local library, and with a $150 investment in raw materials, made a prototype of a multisided kiln. Today, Neil’s design is the industry standard.

Jim’s father, Phil, joined the family business after a stint in the Air Force. “He got snared the same way I did—from my uncle and grandfather saying, ‘Come on down and give us a hand,’” Jim notes. “But he’s the one who really grew it in terms of distribution and getting us into schools.” Most people are first exposed to pottery in school, and with more than 15,000 school districts across the country, they have become a big part of Skutt’s success. Jim estimates that 30% to 40% of Skutt’s sales are to schools.

Jim joined Skutt’s in 1987 after stints at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and in the computer industry. “After bouncing around to different jobs, I figured out that a family business is a pretty nifty thing.” With his background in computers, Jim is taking the company in different directions.

Skutt recently introduced a new product called Kiln Link, which puts the digitally controlled kilns on the cloud, enabling potters to keep an eye on their projects via their mobile phones. “A typical firing can take 8 to 12 hours, followed by a 24-hour cooling period. Professional artists with studios away from their homes want to know when they need to remove their items,” Jim explains. Kiln Link also sends important data to Skutt technicians and can help troubleshoot if there’s a problem with the kiln.

At 49 years old, Jim plans to lead the company for a while longer. He doesn’t think that either of his children will step in to take over, “but I didn’t think I would either.” He says that although some of the Skutts have occasionally thrown a pot or two, his daughter has shown an aptitude for the hobby that has become the family business. “The best potter in the family line is my daughter. She enjoys it. It’s finally taken hold in the fourth generation.”

U.S. Chamber Member Facts:

Company: Skutt Ceramic Products Inc.

Address: 6441 SE Johnson Creek Blvd., Portland, OR 97206

Website: www.skutt.com

Year Founded: 1953

Chamber Member since:1996

Number of Employees: 42

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