Business of Home: "Makers confront a new challenge: downtime"
By: Christine Hendrickson | Apr 30, 2020
For many, the shutdown came like a dam bursting—there was a little trickle of bad news, then all of a sudden the worst-case scenario arrived. Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, the married couple that run Bay Area–based ceramics brand Heath, had been fine-tuning their facilities’ health and safety protocols and planning for a limited closure. “We had a plan to shut down voluntarily on our own for a couple of weeks right before the health orders came in,” says Petravic. “There are certain stages of shock. Two weeks we were going to do anyway ... The reality that this is going to be months has a very different meaning.”
What started as shock quickly turned into a new kind of all-encompassing busy-ness. While across the industry, the shutdown of manufacturing operations has led to furloughs and layoffs on the production floor, for principals and the back-office staff, the new normal is a mad rush to reorganize businesses on the fly, untangle the knots of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, and prep for what lies ahead.
“There’s been no pause,” says Bailey, who is creative director of Heath. “Creating a [new] financial model was Robin’s constant day-and-night task [as managing director], because it’s like no other model we’ve done before. On my side, there are so many things to think about... Even thinking about what product we’re going to put on the shelves first once we start to ease out of this. Everything changed. Everything had to be rethought.”
For Bailey and Petravic, the shutdown has seen an inspiring reshuffle at Heath. Roles are being swapped, with many team members finding themselves taking on something new. “Our photographer is now managing our social media [from] her home studio,” says Bailey. “Our design director is doing internal communications, and our studio director, who now can’t work in his studio, is on our social media team. It’s making it feel more authentic and real. We never would have tried these things before.”
It’s also been an opportunity to reassess the company with a sense of philosophical remove, free from the daily grind of making stuff. When the restrictions are lifted and Heath is able to ease back into manufacturing at capacity again, it won’t be the exact same company it was a month ago, when the lights were first shut off. “Our tile line—is it too complicated? Is it too broad? Well, now we have a chance to think about it and do something about it that we never would have if we were continually making,” says Petravic.
What is Heath? It’s not every single SKU that we make. [...] it’s clear that it’s the overall quality of what we do, it’s the relationship we have with customers.”
“There seemed to be these stakes in the ground that everybody thought were not movable, and when something like this happens, you realize, Wait, why do we have them there?” says Bailey. “You’re asking, What is Heath? It’s not every single SKU that we make. Before, people might have said it was, but now it’s clear that it’s the overall quality of what we do... it’s the relationship we have with customers.”
For their part, Petravic and Bailey are planning a revamp of Heath’s retail locations with cautious shoppers in mind—another item on a long laundry list of COVID-hiatus tasks the couple is chipping away at. A strange quality of this extraordinary time is that, a few weeks in, it’s beginning to feel slightly normal. Petravic and Bailey say they’ve settled into a work-from-home rhythm. The Copes, too, are making it work with two young kids. Hudson is seeing the bright side: “At the beginning it felt like the end of the world, but people were still starting projects.”
And while the past few weeks have been uniquely challenging for makers across the country, they’ve also been uniquely galvanizing. A cliche that’s never felt more true: If you can make it through this, you can make it through anything.
“The first week, I started getting calls from other business owners,” says Petravic. “One friend of mine said, ‘Come on, you’ve thought about it, right? Why not just shut the whole thing down? That’s the reality, you’ve got to think about it.’ As business owners, that’s the first decision we made: OK, we’re not going to do that. So then it comes back to what Cathy said: Just do the work.”