Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden
Tossed out of their Texas home by a tornado, in 1979, Brian and Gail McCarthy loaded the car and hit the road in search of a region with more gentle weather. The Pacific Northwest interested them, as did a few other locales, but while passing through Utah they decided to settle in Asheville, NC. If they hadn’t, the River Arts District might have evolved differently.
The couple had two small children, so they dove into working to pay the bills. Brian was a potter and found studio space in a converted mica plant down Thompson St. next to the Swannanoa River. The building was called Highwater Center.
Sharing the industrial space with other artists was a great way to get to know the city and the community. Clay, the raw material for pottery, was not easy to buy in those days. Artists had to place orders ahead of time and drive to places such as Raleigh (four hours away) to pick it up. Most of the clay suppliers were small volume enterprises, whose product quality and service were unreliable. A fellow ceramic artist, Lawrence Bradshaw, decided to mix his own and sell the excess. He purchased a commercial dough machine that was capable of mixing 250 lbs. of bread dough.
Brian became involved in Lawrence’s operation, and when he wasn’t throwing pots, Brian augmented his pottery income by mixing clay.
Blending Business with Pleasure
After nine months in the business, Bradshaw decided to join the Peace Corps, and sold the business to the McCarthy’s. “We jumped off the cliff,” says Gail. “For $1,500, we got the dough mixer, five tons of raw material and 50 scraps of dirty, tattered, paper with phone numbers on them—the customer list.”
The McCarthys clay operation was called, appropriately, Highwater Clays. There was no Internet or cell phones, so Brian had to learn the clay mixing art through books, experimentation, and ceramic engineers who worked for the companies where he bought raw materials.
Brian and Gail decided that to service customers better than the competition, they would limit their clay body offerings to four or less. The customer list was grown by word of mouth. The McCarthys marketed the clay to fellow potters at craft fairs they attended, and the orders grew steadily.
Making clay was back breaking work. All of the material moving and some of the mixing was done by hand. It took all day to make one ton of clay, and Brian calculated that during the entire process, he and his helpers had lifted that ton 25 times.
Clay production isn’t a sexy business, it’s dirty and dusty…but it interested Brian because it was a steady income, an opportunity to learn, and he enjoyed interacting with his customers.
Being a potter, Brian put product quality first. He had personal knowledge of an artist’s disappointment when a clay flaw destroys a piece that took 60+ hours to create. Highwater Clays began to take time away from Brian’s pottery, but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t reaching for lofty goals; he had a family to support.
“I remember, at the end of one the early years, we had $20K left over,” recalls Brian. “We thought it was amazing, but luckily, we didn’t spend it immediately, because Highwater’s tax bill for the year was also $20K.”
“Brian keeps his head down, focusing on the details,” says Gail. “I provide the vision, like when it’s time to move the business.” Gail loves to hunt for real estate, which is fortunate. When the Thompson St. facility was outgrown in 1985, she found an industrial space for lease at 292 Lyman St. in Asheville’s dilapidated river district (where Gennett Lumber now resides).
A key step in making clay is to remove any air that’s trapped by the mixing process. De-airing is done after the clay is fully formed and has the consistency of, well, clay. Machines that can manipulate such heavy, dense, materials are called pug mills, which Brian couldn’t afford at the time, but he now had the space to house one.
Undeterred, he got in touch with a gentleman in Detroit with a warehouse of used ceramic processing equipment. He had an idea how Brian could fashion his own de-airing station.
Through this conversation, Brian found a mixing machine for sale in a stockyard in Philadelphia. It was made from stainless steel and was used in the manufacture of ground beef, which isn’t clay, but it’s close enough; Brian bought it.
What kept Brian investing time and money into Highwater was the steady growth—revenues seemed to double every year—impressive for a small business operating simply by word of mouth. Their product quality was solid, as was their customer service. Keeping customers waiting, or not delivering on promises, was not an option. Their hard work was rewarded with growth.
Investing in Customers
The McCarthys didn’t take money out of the enterprise. Brian and Gail paid themselves just enough to live on, the rest was poured back into the clay business in the form of capital equipment, systems to do their jobs better and customer education.
Highwater routinely encouraged guest ceramic artists to come to their Asheville location and speak to an assembly of potters and sculptors. It was a vehicle for artists to exchange ideas and keep the creative juices going, and it was a good investment.
Educational events provided artists with opportunities to learn and network, pairing the goodwill with the Highwater brand. In a word of mouth marketing scheme, it was brilliant. Finding space for the workshops was initially challenging; Gail and Brian dreamed of someday having a permanent place for artists to gather under Highwater’s roof.
After eight years manufacturing at the Lyman St. location, they needed yet more room, so Gail began looking. One day the office phone rang, and when Brian picked it up, Gail said, “You’ve got to look at this building!”
The brick building across Clingman Ave. from Dave Steel was for sale. Long, short and narrow, it wasn’t suited to clay manufacturing, but it could give Highwater Clay more storage space with room left over to house artists.
“We’d never owned a commercial building before,” says Gail, “but it was another cliff to jump off! So we did.”
Highwater’s new building allowed the Lyman St. facility to operate more efficiently, and the McCarthys began to renovate the Clingman Ave. location. They updated electrical and mechanical systems, installed new sidewalks and worked with the city to plant trees.
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)