NEWELL - Working as a ware boy at the Homer Laughlin China Co. in the mid-1970s, Gene Williamson couldn't know that one day he'd return as a company vice president.
But after 29 years in the foodservice industry, Williamson said he is glad to be back at Homer Laughlin.
Williamson, 56, of Miller Place, N.Y., recently was named vice president of sales for the foodservice division of the HLC Inc. family of companies, including Homer Laughlin China, Kenilworth/RAK and Hall China.
"When I found out about the opportunity, it was prophetic that I would come back and work there, having been a ware boy from the area," Williamson said in a recent interview. "I would bring the handles for the ladies who put them on the cups."
As vice president of sales, Williamson is responsible for the division that produces table ware for the foodservice industry, including restaurants, hotels, institutions, caterers, country clubs, cruise lines and casinos. The foodservice division also has contracts with all branches of the U.S. military.
"We're the largest remaining domestic tableware manufacturer in the United States, so that helps us get the (military) contracts," Williamson said.
The fact that Homer Laughlin china is still made in America and has a "strong green statement," Williamson said, are among its greatest strengths.
"Our carbon footprint ... is much lighter than all of our competition, which sources from the Asia-Pacific area," he said. "Ninety percent of our competition goes to China or Thailand or Vietnam, and they find factories there, and they buy from there and ship it here."
Williamson calls this an exciting time for Homer Laughlin, which remains one of the area's largest employers. More than 800 people work in the manufacturing plant, and about another 100 are employed in the field and at the main office in Newell.
"We have a very good, veteran sales team. ... We have the latest technology. ... Our capabilities for custom and new production are much stronger than most of our competition," he said.
Williamson ought to know about Homer Laughlin's competitors because he's worked for them over the years.
A 1975 graduate of Wellsville High School, Williamson attended Kent State University-East Liverpool before transferring to West Liberty University. He earned his bachelor's degree in business administration, with an emphasis in management.
In the summer following his graduation, Williamson began the management trainee program at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. But the steel industry's collapse in the late 1970s changed his plans.
He hooked up with some fraternity brothers on Long Island, N.Y., and started his long journey through the foodservice industry, specializing in tabletop and dinnerware.
Along the way, Williamson worked as managing director for Rosenthal and key account manager for Oneida. Prior to that, he managed the Williamson Group, a manufacturer's representative firm that for 20 years specialized in tabletop for restaurants and hotels.
Homer Laughlin President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph M. Wells III said he is pleased to have Williamson on the HLC sales team.
"He is adept at growing meaningful relationships with clients," Wells said, "and we are encouraging him to inspire through leadership, while further extending HLC's value to our top customers."
While much tabletop service is white, Williamson said colors are making a comeback. In addition to the Kenilworth line, Homer Laughlin features Colorations, Bosque, Pesto, Indigo, Fiesta and other dinnerware lines that feature color, he said.
"There's a trend now in the industry that color is coming back to tables," he said. "We see it in the chains, and it will get to the regular restaurants in short order. Anytime there's a color trend, that bodes very well for us because we can do it better than anyone else."