Kindness and Risk

It was nice to start out my new fabric/hat-making/pottery business with such a bang in 1991. I had ongoing accounts with the two biggest stores in New York, pictures of my handmade hats in the New York Times, and more stores wanting plates. I was bolstered by the fame, but my nerves were a wreck from the financial stress of trying to grow a business with no capital. Starting a business and raising two children was taking all my time and energy. My sole income at this time was whatever checks I got from selling plates. Since my business was always growing with more orders, I was always in a situation of not having enough money to buy the supplies to make the plates, to pay the employees, or to live on.

Many months it was a choice between paying the electric bill at home or being able to buy more clay and packing materials to get the orders out. Being a broke artist with questionable credit, I couldn’t get a loan. I couldn’t even get a credit card! Instead, I spent many a phone call with our suppliers, telling them, "I know we owe money, but if you could just send us the boxes, then we could ship out this big order and then we’d get paid and then I could pay for the boxes." I was always begging for credit from suppliers and trying to get my big store accounts to send the money they owed. As the big name stores usually stretched their payment cycles to 2 or 6 months, I was desperate to get them to pay me! I could barely afford to even call them in the daytime to ask them about the status of my payment. (Note: calling long distance used to be so expensive that one would only call after 11 p.m., when the rates went down, or in the daytime if it was an emergency!) Even though I was feeling anxious and insecure, I told myself to think like a successful business person who’s confident and together, and use that voice on the phone. In the first few years, it was like this all the time.

Now remember how I said I had a vision of selling hand painted tea sets at Neiman Marcus? Well, after I’d been in business only 3 years, I got a call from a buyer at Neiman Marcus named Bill Mackin. He said he would like to place a $30,000 order! Having gone almost completely broke from waiting on big checks from big stores already, I could only imagine the stress of being left hanging for $30,000. My mind was screaming, "No way!" but I was sort of in shock, and so I asked him when they wanted it. He said in two months. I was glad he said something so unachievable because I was not looking to risk it! I told him I was sorry, but there was no way we’d able to do it. I didn’t have the personnel, the kilns, or other equipment to do an order that size in two months, but then he said, "Well, why don’t you make a list of everything you’d need in order to be able to do it in that amount of time, and let me know?" I was skeptical, but i told him I’d figure it out. Really, I was just curious to know myself. I figured out we’d need another slab roller, two more kilns, 3 more workers, plus all the clay and glazes and electricity to fire the kilns - and the boxes to pack it all up. It all came out to $19,000. When I called and told him what it would cost, he said, "Well let me send you a check for the $19,000 and you can get started."

I was surprised, but still feeling wary. However, when the check actually arrived, I jumped on it. I quickly ordered all the things we needed and we got to work. The whole order was for different colored salad plates with fruit on them. I think we were charging $9 a piece then, so you can only imagine how many plates there were! They were stacked all over the place. We finally got them all made and accounted for and boxed up and sent them off. It’s still the biggest order we’ve ever had! As you can imagine, that was incredibly unheard of for a store to pre-pay that amount, especially to a little inexperienced pottery girl in Georgia with a barely three year old business. They even paid the balance in a timely fashion. I will never forget that kindness and that risk. Bill had never even met me, but somehow he trusted me. Thanks to his generous help, we were now fully equipped to do more and bigger orders. This was an incredibly lucky thing for me, something I’ve always been thankful for.

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