Eye for detail: Portmeirion ceramics being inspected © Sean Wilton/VisualMedia
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Exports are crucial to the fortunes of Portmeirion Group, one of the main companies leading a fightback by Stoke-on-Trent’s pottery industry after a tough couple of decades. The historic sector has struggled to compete against cheap Asian imports.

“We have worked really hard to revive ourselves and the great backstamp [an identifying mark on pottery] that is Great Britain,” says Phil Atherton, group sales and marketing director. “We have really pushed the ‘Made in the UK’ message, which we believe has had a significant benefit in terms of growing our export business.”

He adds: “Throughout the world people appreciate British quality and design. Stoke-on-Trent is a ceramics centre for the whole of the world and it’s seen as a best-practice area.”

Portmeirion has won a Queen’s Award for International Trade after raising overseas sales by 51 per cent over six years. The company, which is quoted on Aim, manufactures ceramic tableware, cookware, home accessories, gifts, placemats, coasters and trays and has four brands — Portmeirion, Spode, Royal Worcester and Pimpernel.

More than 70 per cent of its products are exported to over 60 countries. The company’s biggest foreign markets are the US and South Korea, but it recently launched in China, Taiwan and Thailand and re-entered the Japanese market. “Export is where we see our future growth,” Mr Atherton says.

The company was founded in 1960 by pottery designer Susan Williams-Ellis, daughter of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who built the Italian-style Portmeirion village in north Wales. She and her husband created the brand by taking over two existing Stoke businesses, A E Gray and Kirkhams.

Portmeirion bought Spode and Royal Worcester out of administration in 2009 and moved some of the production of its Spode Blue Italian range back from China. In 2006 it acquired the Pimpernel brand of placemats and coasters.

Pre-tax profit in 2015 increased 13.6 per cent to a high of £8.6m, while revenues reached a seventh consecutive record, up 11.9 per cent to £68.7m. Almost half of production is carried out at its Stoke factory, where it recently invested £1.5m in a new kiln and other equipment to raise capacity by 50 per cent. The rest of its output is made at factories around the world, including China.

Stoke’s ceramics industry traces its origins to the 17th century, when potters were attracted to the Staffordshire area by the availability of red clay and coal. The local industry’s rise was spearheaded by Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century, who led the way for other manufacturers such as Josiah Spode and Thomas Minton.

In its 19th century heyday, Stoke was home to more than 200 potbanks and employed 100,000 people. Production dwindled in recent decades and many famous brands have disappeared. But recently, several of the remaining companies including Steelite and Dudson have reported record sales or expansion plans. Mr Atherton says: “It’s not just Portmeirion that is performing well — but we are performing ahead of the pack.”

Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden design, launched in 1972, still accounts for almost half its sales and is popular in Asia. The company’s oldest continuously produced pattern is Spode Blue Italian, which marks its 200th anniversary this year. To appeal to younger consumers, the company has also developed products in partnership with designers such as Ted Baker and Sophie Conran.

Mr Atherton says the key to success will lie in understanding cultures around the world and adapting products accordingly. Asian consumers, for example, buy more bowls than plates. To widen the appeal of its ranges, the company has been expanding sales of non-ceramic products such as glassware and textiles. Portmeirion’s aim is to be seen as a homewares as well as ceramics business. “The first logical extension of that is table top — table linens, kitchen linens, table mats, glass, cutlery, etc,” he adds.

Portmeirion also wants its products to be given as gifts on special occasions. “The traditional dinnerware or table setting has become less and less important throughout the world as people eat much more casually,” Mr Atherton says. “Gifting is where we really see the growth in the future. A lot of our pieces can be sold as individual gifts.”

Stoke’s continued ceramics revival will depend on companies reshoring production to the UK, or keeping it there in spite of the cost and scarcity of skilled labour. Many skilled workers left the industry in the 1980s and 1990s and young people were encouraged to pursue other careers.

But last year, Portmeirion’s average number of employees during the year increased from 631 to 684.

Mr Atherton says: “Now people realise this is not just a factory in Stoke-on-Trent, it is a global homewares company with big ambitions and a strong future.

“We are starting to attract people back into the business, which is good. We have brought in a lot of apprentices because we need to train people in some of the production skills we need.”

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