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The Gordons

Creative People

20th February, 2014
Lucy Feagins
Thursday 20th February 2014

The Gordon family, of Robert Gordon Australia.  Left to right - Kate Gordon, Sam Gordon, Robert Gordon, Barbara Gordon, Bobby Gordon and Hannah Gordon.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Behind the scenes at the Robert Gordon Australia factory in Pakenham, Melbourne.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Family patriarch Robert Gordon kindly demonstrates his craftsmanship for us!  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Robert Gordon at the wheel. Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Robert Gordon's retail store at their Pakenham headquarters. Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Plates created by Robert Gordon Australia - top right is a custom plate for George Calombaris' restaurant Gazi, bottom right - Bonnie and Neil plates made by Robert Gordon. Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

I'm not sure how the weeks are flying by so quickly, but somehow, it's already been a month since we first ran our brand new 'Family Portrait' column, which means its already time to introduce you to another inspiring creative Australian family! Without further ado, may I introduce the super lovely and incredibly close knit Gordon family, all of whom work in their family business - Robert Gordon Australia.

Robert Gordon is one of the last remaining production potteries in Australia, responsible for over 150,000 individual products per year (think tableware, kitchenware and other ceramic homewares).  In  addition to this impressive output, in recent years the business has diversified, and now imports selected product from all over the world to complement their core range of locally manufactured product.  From their headquarters and factory in Pakenham, Robert Gordon now stocks over 3000 independent retailers in Australia, the U.S.A, Canada, U.K and New Zealand.

Robert Gordon Australia started life as 'Pack Track Pottery' in the mid 1970's, in Gembrook, in the Dandenong ranges, about an hour out of Melbourne.  The development of this fledgling business was seemingly an inevitable career path for Robert Gordon, whose mother, renowned Australian potter June Dyson, had been running her own respected pottery studio since 1945.

By 1987, Robert's company had outgrown it's tin-shed studio in Gembrook - it was time to expand.  In partnership with his wife Barbara, Robert moved the operation into a purpose built headquarters in Pakenham, where it is still based today.

For Hannah, Kate and Sam, joining the family business was a natural progression. 'We have each been full time for about 12+ years now' says Sam.  Bobby has joined the company more recently, after having his own architecture practice for 5 years.

'We all do a bit of everything, but each of us have our strengths' explains Sam of his siblings' various roles in the business.  Though most decisions are made collaboratively, in general terms, Hannah works on product development, international buying and runs the family's busy retail outlet at their Pakenham headquarters. Katie's strength is in design and development of new products - she is the head designer for Robert Gordon's signature range of tableware. Bobby looks after day to day operations, whilst Sam takes care of sales, marketing, social media (he's @theplateman on instagram!) and meetings with clients in the city. 'Sometimes the family seem to think I'm just off having long lunches with Shannon Bennett all the time, but there's more to it than that!' Sam assures us!

These days, the business employs 35 people in total, the majority of whom have been with the company for 15+ years.  'We really feel they are all like family, and we have to do our best by them' says Sam of their tight knit team.

Alongside their wholesale and retail market, one area where Robert Gordon's work is gaining incredible notoriety is in the custom hospitality market, working with chefs, architects and designers to develop exclusive tableware for some of Melbourne's best known restaurants.  'Our growth in this area is really down to one person, and that is Shannon Bennett from Vue de Monde' says Sam of this growing sector of the business.  'In business it is rare that someone is as generous as Shannon. Through our 10 year association, he has helped us gain access to all the top chefs in Australia'.  Robert Gordon's locally produced tableware can be seen at Vue de Monde, George Calombaris' Gazi and many other notable local restaurants.  They've also collaborated with local designers Bonnie & Neil, Shelley Panton and many others on various custom products in recent years.

During our visit to Robert Gordon HQ, we were lucky to snap some beautiful shots of this prolific local business, plus the obligatory family portrait. (No mean feat getting these six busy people all in one place!).  It was so wonderful to meet this amazing family, to see their beautiful work first hand, and learn a little more about the history of one of Australia's last remaining large scale potteries.

Robert and Barbara on their kids

Our kids all grew up in a environment where they had to create their own entertainment. They were all exposed to pottery at a young age, watching us adults working in the family business.

I think living in Gembrook as a father I admired very much how the Italian families looked out for one another, which was different from the way Australian families operated. I always admired the strength it gave the family. I never pushed for my kids to join the family business, that's the way it unfolded naturally.

It's great having our kids involved in the family business.  As parents, I think Barbara and I are most proud of the dignified way Sam, Katie, Bobby and Hannah handle people day to day. Their commitment to the business is second to none.

Our hopes for Robert Gordon Australia in the future are simply to continue working as a family unit, providing an income for our family and the people that work with us.

Sam and his siblings on their parents

I think at the start when Dad left his mother's business, Dyson Studio, and started Robert Gordon Australia, it was financially very tough. I can remember Mum and Dad working from home, firing kilns at 2am, then loading the truck and driving to markets, and this went on for a number of years.

Dad and Mum are the hardest workers, and built an amazing base for us to build on. Our parents were never the types to try and direct us into a particular job.  The influence grew from growing up and been surrounded by the pottery.  I think being potters is just in our blood.

Mum and Dad are very accommodating, and are forever looking after our interests.  They are pretty cool, otherwise we wouldn't have them in the design meetings!

We would like to see our company grow confidently over the next few years, to really back ourselves, to create the best quality pottery, and to remain on trend in the process.  If we can do this, the sales and fun will follow. Family business isn't always beer and skittles - let's wait and see!  However we are working hard and getting the rewards, and it's good fun.

Also, there are now 8 grandchildren in the family, Sam has 3 children, Kate has 2, Bobby has 2 and Hannah has 1 - all under the age of 4, crazy! It would certainly make for an amazing story if we were to pass the business on to the 4th generation.

Behind the scenes at the Robert Gordon Australia factory in Pakenham, Melbourne.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Details at the Robert Gordon Australia factory in Pakenham, Melbourne.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Details at the Robert Gordon Australia factory in Pakenham, Melbourne.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Ceramic vessels waiting to be glazed.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Designer Katie Gordon in the glazing area.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Glazing.  Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

In the kiln. Production - Lucy Feagins, photo - Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

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