Peter Deneen loved his business, but he loved his family more. When his company went into bankruptcy and all of its assets were sold, the new owner offered him a job. Instead of refusing on pride or principle, he took it. Gladly.
In the early days, Peter and Mary, kids in tow, would work six to seven days a week to produce wares in preparation for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, where they had a booth for over 42 years. Their two sons, in costume, stood in the front of the booth and sold beribboned medallions for $2.00 each. Peter knew that his boys’ charm would be enough to pull customers in to see the other items had for sale. On their first ever $1,000 sale day the family treated themselves—to two North Face down sleeping bags. “We would sleep in the back of the booth on Friday and Saturday nights instead of driving back to St. Paul,” son Niles Deneen remembers. “Those September mornings were so cold that I would pull my costume into my sleeping bag to get dressed before braving the chilly air.”
Source: Deneen Pottery
“Do what you love and the money will follow.” That’s more than just an adage for the Deneens. It’s a legacy. Peter and his wife Mary decided to make Peter’s lifelong love of ceramics into a family business, and opened their eponymous studio and showroom in St. Paul, MN in 1972. Peter had studied pottery in college as an undergraduate, going on to earn his M.A. He was inspired by the Bauhaus movement, which promoted the nurturing of the bond between art, industry and trade in the field of mass production. His and Mary’s eventual goal was to build a retail business similar to Pottery Barn, but to make all of the products in the studio. Despite his lofty aspirations, Peter wanted to keep the small in small business. “We’ll never be more than a handful of people,” he said. “Don’t say ‘never,’” Mary replied.
During the mid 1980s, Peter and fellow craftsperson David Christofferson developed a revolutionary new way to apply intricate, custom artwork to their wares, resulting in massive orders from local powerhouse companies like Pillsbury, General Mills, and Land O’Lakes. The company also filled bulk orders for other pottery businesses that would then sell Deneen goods alongside their own. Things looked good enough that Peter made an expensive move to a new building. Unfortunately, the timing of that move cost him the business. When one of the reseller businesses defaulted on a $50,000 payment in 1988 the business went into bankruptcy. “We didn’t have the cash to pay the rent or meet payroll,” Peter said. “We had just gotten that place rolling when they turned the lights out on us.” After Deneen Pottery was seized by the bank, its assets were sold. The new owner moved the business to Hayward, MN, reopened it under the name Heritage Designs, and asked Peter to work for him. “When you don’t know where your mortgage payment is going to come from and someone offers you a job,” Peter says, “That’s a good thing.”
Things changed in 1991, when an acquaintance of the Deneens put his kiln up for sale. Peter’s boss asked him to travel to South St. Paul to negotiate its purchase on behalf of Heritage Designs. Peter did negotiate the sale of the kiln — but it wasn’t for Heritage Designs. Peter decided to quit and start over, and Deneen Pottery was reborn. The family was, literally, back in business.
Source: Deneen Pottery
Niles, whom Peter always called his “succession plan,” came on board officially (and out of costume) in 2004, after returning to Minnesota after a minor league modeling career in Europe, South Africa and Australia. “Since I felt a calling for home, missed my family and was honestly a bit directionless, I was advised by a mentor to try working for the family business,” Niles started off with a focus in Sales and Marketing, before he took over as CEO in 2012. He still handles marketing details like the detailed and polished www.deneenpottery.com, which includes a frequently updated blog.
“The approach that I have with our blog is that I’m trying to capture moments of our work life—stories and pictures—that will be fun for my kids to read. We tell a visual story of what is going on inside the doors of our studio…our great products, our amazing employees, the random funny moments as well as the connections that we have with our customers.”
Today, Deneen Pottery employs over 50 people and produces, through a careful, multi-step process that takes days, 6,000 to 8,000 mugs per week. These mugs travel all over the world. “So far this year we’ve shipped to France and Australia, but the order of round belly mugs we shipped to an international franchise of the Original Pancake House in Harajuku, Tokyo really stands out,” says Niles. “The next goal is to visit!” Another stand out for Niles? Working with Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. “Working with our National Park Service partners has definitely been rewarding since we have this amazing opportunity to assist in communicating the message of these national treasures to their visitors.”
Legacy has always been one of the core values of Deneen Pottery, and, to Niles, that’s why keeping the business under family ownership is paramount, no matter the pros and cons. “The benefits are that we get to see each other on a daily basis—the drawbacks are we see each other on a daily basis!” he jokes. “ Honestly, what I think it means to have a family business is that some days at work we talk about family topics and at home we can end up discussing work.” The positives, though, outweigh any negatives he could imagine. “The bright moments, the fun times, sharing our success with our employees, and the feeling that we are all one big family working together to create beautiful mugs. On a day-to-day basis, I’m able to receive so much satisfaction by supporting our staff in reaching our collective goal of producing the best hand made custom stoneware pottery on the market.” Niles, like his father before him, does what he loves, and the money, pride and personal fulfillment, follow.
Editor’s Note: It’s no secret we are huge fans of Deneen Pottery’s work and philosophy, and we are excited to announce that we will be offering a batch of limited edition Deneen Pottery Sweatpants & Coffee mugs later this summer. Stay tuned for more details!