SMALL BUSINESS – Mugging it

Posted on Sep 1, 2012 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Entrepreneur and inventor Duane Dunsirn often remembers his father’s motto: “Don’t fight it.”

In that bold spirit (and in spite of the recession impacting so many other businesses) the co-owner of Sunset Hill Stoneware has decided to go big or go home.

This summer, the 14-year-old pottery firm made a huge expansion: moving and quadrupling the size of its production facility, doubling its kiln capacity and nearly doubling its workforce.

“I felt at the end of the day, it was a no-brainer,” says Dunsirn, who owns the Neenah company with his son, Tom Dunsirn.

Handcrafted success

Sunset Hill has made a name for itself crafting high-quality mugs, bowls and other pottery wares one by one – all by hand. It’s ironic, then, that one of its owners is a self-professed machine-making wizard.

“Machines are really my niche,” says Duane, who has always been an entrepreneur and also spent time on the Inc. 500 list, working first with his father and then with his brother in both printing and machine design. Among Duane’s notable inventions are the now-ubiquitous peel-off clear-dry adhesive coupons used by many vendors.

After successfully launching and later selling several of his businesses to national names like Menasha Corp. and Avery, Duane used his business acumen, along with some much-needed capital, to help Tom and Tom’s former business partner launch Sunset Hill Stoneware in the central Wisconsin burg of Dale in 1998.

“I’m not a potter, but there are some really interesting things I can do,” says Duane, who designs pottery wheels and other equipment used by the production facility. Now 63, he says he toyed with retiring but decided, “the more I was around (the business), the more I became enamored of it.”

And it was largely his vision – fueled by years of intuitive business insights – that led Duane to the realization, “We’ve got to take this thing national.”

While Sunset Hill Stoneware’s first customer was a tiny local pub in Dale, the company has now expanded its client base worldwide, including to shops in the Statue of Liberty and Yellowstone National Park and online at www.dead.net (Rhino Entertainment’s home of the Grateful Dead).

“I like to offer higher end, high quality products that are made in the U.S.A. and tend to look for companies that feel more like a small family owned and operated business,” says Heather Lewis, director of online merchandising for Rhino Entertainment in Burbank, Calif.

“Since I am sourcing products that are to be custom made for such a unique customer, I feel it’s very important to work one-on-one with someone that understands what I am looking for and is able to meet my needs. It becomes more of a partnership.”

Producing American-made products has definitely increased the popularity of Sunset Hill’s wares, especially after an ABC News “Made in America” series chronicled the topic (Sunset Hill is one of the Wisconsin companies cited on the news giant’s website).

“It’s become huge being American-made,” adds Tom, noting that some naysayers still don’t believe each piece is handmade.

Pat Bowser, Sunset Hill’s marketing director, notes that in addition to all its wares being crafted one by one, the company utilizes clay from the United States and uses eco-friendly packaging. The pottery is also “green” in every sense of the word – Sunset Hill’s new 10,500-square-foot facility in Neenah even recycles BTUs from its kilns to heat the building.

One huge step forward

While Sunset Hill’s 2,500-square-foot facility in Dale was functional, space was getting cramped. Duane planned for more than four years to make a move that would dramatically elevate the scope of Sunset Hill’s business.

After finding an ideal location in Neenah, shelling out a “huge investment,” gutting and renovating the building and customizing space and equipment to its needs, the company prepped for its move, which took place this summer. They hope to increase their workforce from 22 to 35 – including master potters who will handcraft between 500 and 1,500 pieces per day. The company replaced its original 10 kilns with 26 new firing units.

Duane says taking such a drastic leap to increase the company’s size, workforce and capacity in a down economy was like a “chicken and egg” debate. “What can the company support?” he posits. But he’s confident Sunset Hill has made the right decision.

“You’ve got to be sure of your product,” he says, noting he is a believer in author Steven Covey’s mantra,“sticking to what you do best.”

But as Duane has shown, he’s far more than just words. His passion for business, a family tradition handed down by his father, says it all.

“At the end of the day, I just believe in this so much,” he says. “I’ve done this all my life. I’ve crossed the line where others didn’t want to.”

On the web  www.shstoneware.com