Dishing Out Delight


As CEO of Fiesta Tableware, Elizabeth (Wells) McIlvain ’73 is steering her family’s venerable company into the future


Crafty humans have been shaping clay into functional containers for thousands of years, but it took the insight of a West Virginia businessman named Joseph M. Wells, in the depths of the Depression, to realize that pottery could be a party. Traveling through California in the 1930s, Wells saw ceramic tableware glazed in bright colors, and upon returning to his family’s sprawling pottery plant on the banks of the Ohio river, he asked the company’s art director, Frederick Rhead, to create something similarly bold. “Make people happy when they are eating dinner,” he told him. The result, introduced in 1936, was Fiesta, the art deco-inspired tableware that would eventually become the country’s most collected line of pottery, adored by generations.

Elizabeth (Wells) McIlvain ’73 knows this history well, as one would expect from the current President and CEO of the Fiesta Tableware Company—and the granddaughter of Joseph Wells. She recounted the story at Reunion this past May, where she was honored with the school’s Williston Northampton Medal in recognition of her contributions leading her family’s 152-year-old enterprise. CEO since 2013, McIlvain previously held supervisory and executive positions, pausing her career to raise her three daughters, two of whom are now key members of the Fiesta marketing team. They represent the fifth generation of the Wells family to serve at the Newell, West Virginia, company.

As a ninth grader at Northampton School for Girls, however, Liz had no aspirations of being the first woman to lead one of the country’s largest pottery manufacturers. “Heavens, no!” says McIlvain, who last year was also inducted into the West Virginia University Business Hall of Fame. “Honestly, that was the furthest thing from my mind.” She had arrived in Northampton just as her school was merging with nearby Williston Academy, a transition she and her peers initially found unsettling but which ended up being “a very positive experience for me,” she says. “I loved Williston, and I loved the people I met.”

McIlvain reveled in athletics, in particular playing girls soccer, an opportunity she did not have growing up in West Virginia. And she was inspired by her teachers, she says, “who were so devoted to their students, and to helping them find their way to maturity.” Indeed, after Williston, she earned a degree in elementary education herself, at West Virginia’s Bethany College. After graduating, however, teaching jobs were not easy to come by.

At the time, her father, Joseph Wells, Jr., was running what was then known as the Homer Laughlin China Company. She asked him for a job, and he agreed to give her one, on the condition that she stay on to learn the business. “I took him up on it,” she says, “and I never regretted that decision.”

She began in the plant, learning the manufacturing processes, seeing firsthand how the various pieces are produced using both time-honored artisanal techniques and state-of-the-art technology. In the process, she came to better understand the vital role the company plays in the economy of the region, a one-time vibrant hub of pottery manufacturing that had been hard hit by foreign imports after World War II. “I really fell in love with my community and the people around it,” explains McIlvain, who lives with her husband, Jack, in East Liverpool, Ohio, just across the river from the Newell factory. “We’re the last major manufacturer of dinnerware in the United States now. There were so many major companies that were bought out. But my family was always community oriented and wanted to provide jobs and opportunities for the people who lived here.”

That desire remains strong, even as the business pressures facing Fiesta have grown increasingly challenging. At its peak in 1948, Homer Laughlin had more than 3,000 workers; today, Fiesta Tableware employs 300. Indeed, the company’s new name is itself a reflection of how McIlvain and the company are adapting to the times: In 2020, the company sold the Homer Laughlin name and intellectual property rights to Steelite International, a British tableware manufacturer specializing in commercial china for hotels and restaurants. McIlvain’s company became Fiesta Tableware, with a focus on retail sales.

It isn’t the first time the company has pivoted in response to economic forces. In 1973, Homer Laughlin decided to fold the Fiesta line and put its efforts exclusively into hotel and restaurant tableware. While that strategy was successful, after a decade or so the company noticed that its discontinued pottery was attracting new attention. Drawn by nostalgia, perhaps, or the classic designs and colors, collectors were resurrecting the brand, one flea market and estate sale at a time.

In 1985, the company brought Fiesta back, and with it came a new generation of fans with cupboards full of memories. “One thing we’ve learned,” says McIlvain. “if they’re a Fiesta user, they have a story about their memories of Fiesta. Their grandmother had a special green bowl that they always ate their cereal out of, or they had a yellow pitcher that they made lemonade in. Everyone has a story.”

McIlvain—born with clay slip in her veins, as she likes to say—remains optimistic about her company’s future, though she knows all too well the obstacles faced by manufacturers in the United States. Fiesta Tableware continues to engage its customers with limited runs of new pieces and a new color every year (55 shades and counting since 1936). Larger orders are starting to pick up again, and the company’s factory tent sale last June was its best ever. But it’s been a difficult time, McIlvain notes, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

“The world has changed so dramatically,” she says. “If you don’t evolve, you die. So we’re evolving, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able ride the storm out.”

In helping navigate that journey, McIlvain says she still draws on lessons absorbed at Williston, such as learning how to analyze people, and understand their needs. “I watched my teachers do that. Reflecting back, I understood that they were helping students work out their problems individually. When you’re running a company, everybody has a different personality, and you have to learn how to get the most positive work out of people.”

And for those in the Williston community with a fondness for Fiesta, McIlvain can’t help putting in a plug for the 2023 color of the year. Officially it was jade, she notes, but “it was very close to Williston Green.”