The next time you’re in the gift shop of a popular attraction — whether it’s the Grand Canyon or the Lincoln Memorial — pick up one of the coffee mugs, flip it over and look at the insignia on the bottom. You might just be surprised where that item was made.
Sunset Hill Stoneware, a pottery studio in Neenah, produces handcrafted coffee mugs, beer steins and more for several high-profile customers like Harley-Davidson, L.L. Bean, and yes, the Grand Canyon. While these wholesale accounts make up the bulk of the business, individuals can purchase premade products through the company’s website or on Amazon and can order custom items for weddings and other events, family cabins and corporate gifts.
While the company has some big-name clients, Sunset Hill Stoneware had a modest start. Owner Tom Dunsirn met a friend in college who was involved in pottery. The two decided to start a business.
“They were driving down a country highway and saw a ‘for lease’ sign outside of a building in Dale, Wisconsin,” says Chris Rand, president of Sunset Hill Stoneware. “With a paper placemat, they made a lease agreement on the spot and it all started there.”
Since that time in 1998, Tom Dunsirn’s father, Duane, also became an investor and part owner in the business, which has since moved to Neenah. “He invested money in building a state-of-the-art pottery production studio,” Rand says. “It’s arguably one of the most high-tech ceramic studios in existence.”
Those technological advances have contributed to Sunset Hill Stoneware’s continued success. “We can go from a lump of clay to a finished mug faster than anyone because of the technology at hand,” Rand says.
As the business continued to grow — it now employs about 50 — both Tom and Duane agreed they wanted to bring somebody on board to manage the company and convert to an inbound sales model. That’s where Rand came in.
“We’re able to capitalize on the internet, social media and digital advertising to find people online who are looking for mugs and provide them with a handmade piece of functional art,” Rand says.
In addition to investing in technology and great people, Rand credits numerous anchor customers, such as several national parks, for Sunset Hill’s continued success. “There are certain customers that have recognized the quality of our product and have really provided a backbone for the business throughout the years,” he says.
In addition to offering stability, that’s also the best organic marketing the company can get. Rand says tourists at the Grand Canyon or the Lincoln Memorial may pick up the mug, turn it over and see Sunset Hill’s name. “That’s how we’ve gotten a lot of business over the years,” he says.
The company’s goals include refining the custom online ordering process to allow shoppers to upload images, preview their orders and check out, Rand says.
However, the team is mostly looking forward to continuing to do what it does best: making standout stoneware. “The people who work here have a great sense of fulfillment,” Rand says. “They’re able to preserve this artform, create and make a living at the same time.”