27 June 2023
by Sarah Morgan

A love affair with ceramics

Hannah Ault, Managing Director of Valentine Clays, is the first female Vice President on the British Ceramic Confederation’s Board. Sarah Morgan catches up with her about her journey in making a career in ceramics.

Above: Hannah Ault © Valentine Clays

Hannah Ault is 'really, really proud' to be the first female Vice President (VP) on the Board of the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC). She says, 'It’s just a real honour to be asked to do that role. I think it’s very significant for my industry, to show how we are moving forward.'

Despite this, her younger self wanted to be a historian. 

She says, 'I’ve always connected with strong females throughout history. And they’ve always kind of struck me as role models a little bit.'

What inspired her to get into the ceramics industry? 'I’ve been raised within this industry.' Her business is a family business. She says, 'Clay is in my blood…It’s something that’s always been kind of within me.'

However, she did not go straight into the family business. She says, 'If I’m honest, my Dad didn’t want me in the business. He wanted me to go out into the big wide world and make a name for myself doing other things.'

She had to carve out her own career. But 'always in the back of my head, was that one day I would love to have the opportunity to take my family’s business forward'.

Above: Porcelain filter cake being passed through a pugmill © Valentine Clays

A winding path
Ault says of her career to date, 'I suppose it’s quite varied – I think because Dad was adamant about not going into the family business'.

Her interest in history made way for an interest in fashion on a product level. This combined with an interest in PR and marketing. 'Luckily, I managed to get an internship [in America].' From there, she returned to her BA (Hons) in Product Development for the Fashion Industry, at the London College of Fashion, and went onto a buyer’s admin role. Here, she 'realised very quickly that wasn’t what I wanted to do'. 

She found the fashion world very 'much like the Devil Wears Prada…And I really struggled within the industry if I’m honest'. But these formative experiences gave her a model of what not to be, and she 'left that industry quite disheartened'. 

Afterwards, she went travelling and decided to become a Holistic Therapist.

'I got a job working for a local health spa in Staffordshire as their Marketing Manager.' From here, she went into a marcomms agency, where she met one of her female mentors, which led to her Marketing Manager role at Emma Bridgewater, UK, a well known ceramics company. It was here 'she helped me to develop to become the woman I am today. She taught me her craft really'.

This work accelerated her involvement in projects on a significant scale and companies became more aware of her.

'At this point, I think my Dad started realising…she knows what she’s talking about.' Returning to the family business 'was still my passion'. She could see how they could build on it, grow it and make it what it is today. 'I’m quite proud of what we’ve established today.' 

She has worked her way up through the family business. 'So, it wasn’t ever handed to me on a plate…I’m really lucky to have such a supportive Dad who gets my vision and we are both on the same path. He’s very clear that if I hadn’t shown an interest to come into this business, we would not be where we are today.'

Making her mark
As for working in a male-dominated industry, Ault says. 'It was great…A lot of people get surprised by my answer on this…Don’t forget, I’ve worked in fashion…And it was horrendous'. She says moving into the ceramics industry was 'refreshing'. 

'I found that men in our industry are really supportive…I’ve never felt that it was a difficult industry to be in as a woman. I felt quite the opposite.'
In terms of the VP role, at BCC, she says, 'It’s fitting because our industry does come across as male-driven, but it isn’t really, it’s very open. There are a lot of strong females within our industry. We will hopefully see this coming through the trade organisation in the coming years'.

The recognition from the trade body for what she has achieved in the sector has been a tad 'overwhelming', she reflects. 'And it’s kind of all coming at once.' She has also become one of 12 Deputy Lieutenants for Staffordshire and is on the Board of the Staffordshire Chambers of Commerce, as well as being appointed the Chair of We Are Staffordshire, which is a huge honour for her. She feels 'a bit gobsmacked when you think where I came from…you feel like you’re in a bit of a dream'. 

Her key takeway from her career so far is the importance of people management. 'I think being treated the way I got treated in the fashion industry…it really resonated with me to ensure that never happens to anyone who works for me, that I ever come in contact with…So, I try and empower my staff. I don’t dictate, I don’t want a dictatorship. We are a team. We work together.'

She says of Valentine Clays, 'I feel very fortunate, but it’s not been easy. We are a family business, which can be challenging. Obviously, I’m happy to be sitting where I am because my Dad was very adamant that he wanted me to go and make my own path in life. I think he felt I could do better than here. And I spent most of my life trying to prove to him ‘you need me, I can help’. And that’s been quite a battle.' 

Despite what she has said about male support in the industry, she says, 'It is hard for a woman and business is tough. It can come at a price. I haven’t got a partner. I haven’t got kids. I’d like to say people can have it all, but I think it’s very difficult...I’m really lucky that I’ve never felt that being a woman was an issue or problem. And that stems from my Dad.' 

More than meets the eye
As an industry, she thinks there is a lot of work to do as ceramics is still associated largely with hospitality.  

'And I think this is what government doesn’t realise as well. We are the foundation of most other industries. So, without ceramics, you probably would not have the medical devices out there, you wouldn’t have your teeth, you wouldn’t have mobile phones. I don’t think people realise quite how much we underpin most other industries.' 

She says, over the next few years, 'we need to make that more clear and more evident to government, to the people, quite how important our industry is and why we need the support we need'.

Despite this, she says, 'It’s a very exciting time for industry, obviously with advanced ceramic technology…I would say it’s quite buoyant. I think it’s got a real future…We export about £600mln worth of goods a year and I think that’s growing...but we are not great about shouting about ourselves – what we do and how good we are at what we do and that needs to change.'

She has an interest in promoting young people within the industry. 'I want to see more people coming into our industry, I want them to see it as a career of choice…And that starts with young people. We need to re-educate people in terms of what our industry actually is and what opportunities there are. We’ve got a great level of different skills. It’s not all shopfloor skills. There are lots of different kind of options in terms of design, innovation, technical. We need young people seeing our industry as a future prospect, to help us to carry on doing what we are doing.'

She found her calling in the end. 'I can’t imagine not being part of this industry…This isn’t a job for me. It’s life…I love it. It’s just something that’s part of who I am. I feel like I’m really lucky to have the job.'

For those wanting to follow in her footsteps, she says, 'Do it, don’t even think about it, just do it. I think now is the time to get involved with ceramics. It’s an exciting time. There is great opportunity. Not just for women, but for anyone that might have a bit of an interest in ceramics. Now’s the time to get involved.

 'I just think it’s a case of doing your research, making sure you are aware of what you’re getting yourself into, but you also need to take risks.'