Remembering former Homer Laughlin president and CEO Joseph Wells III.
Joseph Wells III’s career path was always a foregone conclusion. Someday, he was going to be president and CEO of the family business: Homer Laughlin China Company. “It was pretty well-known in our family he would take over that position,” says his sister, Liz McIlvain, Homer Laughlin’s current president.
Wells started at the prominent Newell-based dinnerware company as a part-time worker in high school and college. He attended Denison University before later receiving an executive post-graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and serving in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. He started to work full-time in 1963, working in the sales department before succeeding his father as executive vice president and general manager in 1986. He became president and CEO in 2002.
At the time of his death on March 12, 2019, Wells was chairman of the company’s board of directors. He was 77.
Perhaps his biggest legacy with the company was his decision to bring back the iconic Fiestaware brand. The line of brightly colored dinnerware was introduced in 1936. “The philosophy was that brightly colored glazes would bring cheer to peoples’ tabletops and they’d have something to look forward to,” McIlvain says.
Homer Lauglin retired the product in the 1970s but Wells realized the public demand for the line’s vibrant and uniquely named colors like Mulberry, Scarlet, and Shamrock and brought it back. “It’s amazing, to this day, how collectible and how desirable it is to some people,” McIlvain said by phone as she looked at the line’s newest color, Meadow—a shade of light green that will hit shelves in June.
The brand now accounts for about 50 percent of Homer Laughlin China Company’s sales. “If Fiesta weren’t so popular, I don’t know that our doors would still be open,” McIlvain says.
In addition to bringing back the Fiesta line, Wells was instrumental in creating jobs in the Ohio Valley. Even as it became cheaper to make dinnerware out of the country, it remained important to Wells to produce an American-made ceramic product. That’s still important to the company and family, McIlvain says. The company currently employs about 700 people in the region.
McIlvain says Wells was well-respected in the food service and retail business. “He was great to bounce things off of, and I always respected him for the relationships he had in the industry.” But more than that, he was a good big brother.
written by Kate Mishkin