Emma Bridgewater, pottery queen: Think recklessly and be prepared to work hard

As part of our series we visit Emma in her Stoke-on-Trent factory. She tells us how she grew her company from the kitchen table to a high street brand, and her tips on how to get funding

Fettling, jiggering and jolleying are not words with which most of us are familiar. But arriving at Emma Bridgewater’s impressive restored Victorian factory in Stoke-on-Trent is like taking a journey back in time, because those three words are centuries-old skills that are still in operation.

Walking through the production process is a fascinating insight into how Emma’s pieces are made. The pale grey clay turns to pastel in the sponging area, where skilled workers add the colour and decoration that makes Emma Bridgewater pottery so distinctive, whether that be her famous multi-coloured polka dot pasta bowls or personalised heart-printed mugs.

Emma is in her early fifties. She started Bridgewater Pottery in 1985 after spotting a gap in the market for colourful earthenware pottery, as opposed to formal china dinner services. She launched it with £450 of savings after being unable to find a mug with a suitable informal design for her mother’s kitchen.

Today, she and her husband Matthew own 85 per cent of their business, it has a £17 million annual turnover and has reached double-digit growth year on year.

[Meet another High50 Entrepreneur: Melissa of JamJar Flowers]

Emma Bridgewater has certainly come a long way from when I first met her in the Eighties, experimenting with sponge-painted ceramics in a kitchen in Brixton. I also know that she has worked extremely hard and her journey to success has not been plain sailing.

There have obstacles to overcome along the way. In between juggling motherhood (she has four children) and the business came the near-fatal accident of her mother (leaving her with severe brain injuries) and Emma’s own debilitating illness.

By the time Emma was 44, the stress she had been under running the business led to increasing tiredness and anxiety, which was later diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. She realised that she had not been home for as much as a week at a time as she was constantly driving from her home in Norfolk to the factory in Stoke.

Within days of seeing the doctor she handed over the reins to her husband, illustrator Matthew Rice. Since then her role has been more defined, sticking to marketing and product design.

Asked if she would start a business in her fifties she admits that she would tread with caution.

She emphasises how important it is to find the right team if you want to drive growth. To achieve this, Emma was forced to make redundancies when they first took over the factory.

This was clearly a very onerous task for her and took place in the room where we are interviewing her today, which she now hates, and seems in contrast with the pretty pottery and cosy-looking tea towels that line the walls.

Emma: I wouldn’t sell the business

The business is clearly now in a great position. Asked if she would sell the business, she says she feels strongly that there is a huge advantage in maintaining ownership and “anyway, I like having my name above the door.”

As it’s a family business the couple can afford to be less greedy and look for ‘social capital’ rather than straight profit. They can decide what they want to invest in and make long-term decisions.

They employ 240 staff in Stoke-on-Trent and Emma fears that if they sold out any buyer might sell the factory, which also has a shop and a café on its premises. She also has retail shops in Marylebone and Fulham.

Asked about the difference between starting a business in your twenties and one in your fifties, she says “the recklessness of youth gets you through the fear”, whereas at 50 you have leave that devil-may-care spirit behind and be more rational and sensible.

Meet another High50 Entrepreneur: Johnnie Boden

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Emma’s perfect plate for a shellfish lunch

Stoke must be thrilled that this highly intelligent, creative woman is not only staying put but continuing to create.

Since the death of her mother last year she has been keen to make room for something else, and in June she organised the first Stoke Literary Festival. It took place in the factory, where tickets for talks with authors including Andy McNab, Matthew Parris, David Starkey and Melvyn Bragg sold out.

Following its success, Emma is planning another one in 2015. It’s the beginning of something big. She has also recently published a book called Toast & Marmalade and Other Stories, which talks about the history of the brand and is littered with amusing anecdotes.

Emma’s advice on how to finance your start-up

1. Go to the bank manager – he is not the devil and is often helpful. The banks will expect to find you fully committed to the business and will not just give you a bank loan. They will expect you to match that with security. Use friends and family and crowd-funding.

2. You need to put together a business plan, even in a rough form, as soon as possible. hink of a business you admire and think what that would be like to be in and come up with a palpable tangible image of your business, and throw in some wild figures.

3. It is very important to put your idea at risk of sale as fast as possible. See what people think of your product. You’ve got to know if there is a hunger for what you are offering before you start to invest in it yourself. Those rough figures from the beginning are what you can start to base your business plan on.

4. Don’t be frightened by the idea of a business plan. The bank manager will have a team of people to help you with that kind of thing. If they don’t, she recommends you make a rumpus and demand service. Do not be afraid of making mistakes as they help you refine your plan.

5. You get what you dream of. I saw Emma Bridgewater Pottery as a big business and would like it to be even bigger and to employ more people. I am consistently proud of creating jobs in the factory.

Emma’s three top tips for later-life entrepreneurs

1. Set aside all wisdom that you have accrued and think recklessly.

2. Make sure that you feel passionately about the business that you embark on as you will work extremely hard.

3. Have a well-thought-out business plan.