Artist Spotlight: Niles Deneen CEO of Deneen Pottery

Artist Spotlight: Niles Deneen CEO of Deneen Pottery

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If you're a proud owner of a Death Wish Deneen Pottery mug, then you know it's not just the impeccable quality and design that makes them special, it's the care that goes into each one. Niles Deneen, CEO of Deneen Pottery, has been at the head of the company since 1994 when his parents, both potters gave him the reigns. Since then, the company has grown to be one of the most sought after vessels for hot beverage drinking in the country, in no small part due to Nile's diligence, knowledge, and love of the brand. Ahead of our newest winter mug release, we talked to Niles about growing up with Deneen, what his day-to-day is like and of course, how he likes his coffee.

Tell us a little bit about your background?

I grew up in Saint Paul, MN with potters for parents - Mary and Peter Deneen- and a younger brother, Owen. My junior high school teacher once wrote in my yearbook: "I wish you luck harnessing your exuberant energy, otherwise you will probably end up in a correctional institution." Luckily, I could channel my energy into athletics and in high school, I joined the track & field team. I gravitated toward the hurdles and by the 11th grade I won two events at our state meet and recorded a new state record. During my senior year, I defended both races successfully and went on to enroll at the University of Minnesota on a partial track scholarship. I still hold the University of Minnesota record for the 110m High Hurdles and the indoor 55M High Hurdles. But beyond all that leaping, I met some amazing teammates (some of which are still my best friends) and I had a blast tapping into my creative side through my degree in graphic design.

Did you always want to take over the pottery business?

No. It was actually the furthest thing from my mind when I finished college. I didn't see joining the company as my path for a few reasons - but the main one was that I needed to explore the world. It wasn't until I was 28, and had filled my passport working as a model in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, that I felt a strong calling for home.

Even at that time, I didn't realize the opportunity that our family business had to offer me and my skill set. I thought I wanted to be a pilot or a pharmaceutical rep. Thankfully, a former teammate gave me the best advice when I was asking him about his wife's career as a drug rep: "Dude it sucks - don't be an idiot, go work for your dad and help him grow that pottery company."

What have been some of your favorite memories from your work?

Without question, it's the staff we have in place and the awesome customers - especially Death Wish Coffee Company - that make my work days so great. But, if I had to pick one it would be the day that John and I started working together on the first DWC mug. Oh yeah, I can't forget the exciting lead up to the Super Bowl and the amazing Intuit Commercial. Although it was a huge bummer our mug didn't make the cut, the feeling of being with you all on that journey was fantastic.

How have you seen the company grow in the last 10 years?

Oh man! Well, just to give you an idea of where we were then versus where we are now: in 1994 (when I came on board and took over sales department) our staff numbered 24 and our daily production numbers were 500-600 mugs. Today, we have a team of 80 craftspeople and our daily total ranges between 2300-2500 mugs.

Can you discuss the process of making mugs?

We start by preparing the clay in a pug mill and a de-airing machine so that our potters have the most consistent material from which to throw their mugs. Handles and medallions are attached the following day and then the mugs sit for up to 24 hours to dry. Bisque firing is the next step, which is a preliminary firing. When they come out of the bisque kilns the mugs go into the glaze room. After the mugs are glazed we then sponge off the foot (bottom) and the medallion (so you can see all the awesome details in the artwork) of each mug. The mugs are then stacked into our 80 cubic foot glaze kiln which is fired up to 2250º.

After about 24 hours the kiln is ready to open. Peeking into a just open glaze kiln is my dad's favorite, "It's like Christmas morning with all the wrapped presents under the tree - so many beautiful shapes and colors". And with all the work that we continue to do for Death Wish, every firing is sure to include one of their mugs.

If you weren’t running the pottery business what would you be doing?

Professionally, I haven't had time to think about it, but the idea of being a stay-at-home dad would be incredible. My two kids, Eloise (5) and Theo (3), are just the most amazing creatures ever and they are growing up way too fast! If I wasn't working, I'd definitely make sure that I would spend WAY more time with them!  

What’s a typical day like for you?

I'm usually up at 6:00 am getting breakfast and lunches ready, then I drive Theo to daycare and usually have time to get in a workout at the gym. I typically arrive at work at 9:00 am and fire up the Keurig with a large cup of Death Wish! With hot coffee in hand, I walk through our 20,000 square foot production floor greeting each and every employee. 

How do you like your coffee?

At home, I love adding half & half - but at work, I like it black.


The winter mug comes out Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24th. 

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