EAST LIVERPOOL - A chance phone call in the fall of 2011 has allowed a local pottery to not only keep its doors open but to significantly increase production and its work force, and during a stop at American Mug and Stein Tuesday U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown pledged to help the owner continue that upswing.
Renewing his call to "buy American," Brown met with owner Clyde McClellan, Mayor Jim Swoger and Service-Safety Director Ryan Estell as well as others interested in helping American business compete with foreign trade.
Accompanying the senator were representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Governor's Office of Appalachia, with PNC Bank officials also present for the tour.
McClellan was barely keeping his doors open at the former Pioneer Pottery in 2011, sometimes having as few as two employees earning minimum wage, when he got that fortuitous call from California businessman Ulrick Honighausen.
The call resulted in a contract with the popular Starbucks corporation for 20,000 mugs, and it has been uphill for the small pottery since then.
During Tuesday's visit, McClellan told the senator, "We're really pleased with the business we have. We just recently hired several new people."
He said, "We have been in survival mode for five years and now we're seeing a little daylight," but admitted that, if Starbucks wanted to increase its order drastically, he would have to expand, saying he is currently using 25 percent of the building for production now, firing his 35-year-old kiln seven days per week.
His idea would be to add a second kiln since the existing one is not the most efficient, McClellan told Brown, saying the best plan would be to buy the building in front of his for the second kiln.
"What's stopping you from expanding?" Brown questioned, and McClellan said that, while Starbucks has "bent over backward to work with this small company," until he was able to get a line of credit established again, just meeting payroll was difficult, let alone putting any money into the building.
"My windows are falling out. I wanted to replace them last year, but was I going to make payroll or replace windows? I have a 112-year-old slate roof and buckets catching rain water," McClellan told the senator.
"Everything is going in a positive direction, but I've been down so often, I'm taking a very conservative approach," McClellan admitted.
Saying he is proud his company has moved from four employees to 21, McClellan said, "My employees are very motivated. I want to be able to pay a living wage."
With his employees currently earning between $8 and $13 per hour, McClellan said raising the minimum wage is "something government has to get involved in."
One of his employees was hired under a program that provides tax credits for hiring those recently released from prison, but McClellan said, "I didn't hire him for that reason."
At the senator's request, McClellan and others headed to his office following the plant tour to further discuss his needs.
During the discussion, Brown asked McClellan if he feels the demand for his products is there if he should get some financing help, such as low-interest loans to hire more people.
"Very much so. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if I didn't think so," McClellan advised.
Additional orders have arisen out of a New York Times article about the Starbucks contract and the pottery, including one from actor/director Ron Howard and another from A&E for mugs related to the Duck Dynasty program shown on that channel.
"We've never had to market. We're doing seven times the volume we were four years ago," McClellan said, saying the Starbucks contract represents 35 percent of his company's growth.
Estell also spoke with Brown about the census track program hurting the city's economic development.
He said the city needs to be able to offer potential developers some kind of incentives, with new market and historic tax credits two of the most often offered.
However, the area in which American Mug and Stein is located, for example, is not eligible for new market tax credits due to the census track program which ties that area into the retail and higher property value area of Calcutta.
Brown was asked to look into that situation, and Estell and Swoger planned to meet with one of the senator's aides following his tour to discuss this and other matters.
Before leaving the pottery, Brown told city officials and McClellan, "We'll keep working with you."
According to Brown's staff, he has "long fought to protect American workers and businesses from Chinese illegal trade practices."
He introduced the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2013, bipartisan legislation that would reform and enhance oversight of currency exchange rates.
The senator also has introduced a package of key legislative proposals aimed at bolstering the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers and boosting domestic manufacturing, according to information provided by his office.