New mom and business owner Kathleen Armour Walker has always had a powerful work ethic. “I was an only child who fiercely wanted to prove to the world that I was not spoiled,” she says. Kathleen was working for the American Cancer Society in Memphis when she learned that Tennessee Pewter Co., a longtime Somerville business that offers handmade pewter serveware and accessories, was on the brink of closure. She’d always had an eye on entrepreneurship, plus she’d always loved entertaining, which meant Kathleen knew she’d found her calling.
Kathleen purchased Tennessee Pewter in 2008, and she and her father, Jim Armour, apprenticed under the former owners for six months to learn the craft. Today, she’s rebuilt Tennessee Pewter into a strong Southern brand, carrying on an ages-old tradition while working alongside her dad every day. “When folks mention it must be nice to work with your dad, I say it’s no accident that we work together and love it,” she says. “Without us, there would be no Tennessee Pewter as folks know it today. We’ve evolved into a seven-day-a-week production schedule.”
Tell us about the process you undertook to learn your craft and train for your role as owner of Tennessee Pewter.
I have apprenticed under some of the finest craftsmen in the country. My mentor is a retired Tiffany silversmith, and our relationship is wonderful and very special. Each job teaches us new skills as we continuously learn new techniques to make the pewter more pleasing and beautiful.
What does a day in your work life look like?
I love checking for online orders in the early morning. It’s fun to see where folks live that love Tennessee Pewter. Canada, England and Germany love pewter! I never know what to expect in a day. I may receive a call from a company wanting a custom item, a bride wanting to register or a grandmother who has a new grandbaby. I love chatting with my customers and really getting a feeling for what they’re wanting. Most evenings, we work late. We’re not morning folks, so we enjoy our flexible work life.
What excites you most about your job?
I love making folks happy! I thrive on knowing we are crafting tomorrow’s heirlooms today. It is a pleasure to craft folks’ most special gifts. Each day brings new challenges, and I’m always trying to make my customers very pleased. My favorite part about what we do is that I get to live in rural west Tennessee, but be connected to folks all over the world. Today’s technology enables us to communicate with everyone as if we were in a big city. I get to live the life I want in the place I want to be.
Describe your very favorite piece you’ve created so far.
We created a pewter water bucket for a church. It was so gorgeous — it’s the largest and most special piece we have crafted. We also made the Grand Champion Trophy for the Germantown Charity Horse Show.
You’re a new mom to 7-month-old Jack. Tell us what it’s been like to balance motherhood with being a full-time entrepreneur. How has your family supported you through the transition?
Without the full-time help of my mother, I could not continue to work as I do. Mom has had Jack the past week while we are in the middle of the Christmas season. My parents are just ecstatic about Jack and love having him at the house! I’m an only child, so they just love doting on him. Motherhood has been a new experience. Going on bed rest at five months pregnant did change things considerably before he was born — I was already used to doing business in a new light. His arrival has brought much joy and excitement. I love having a baby line of products. It makes it so much more special now that I’ve made my own child’s baby cup.
What would other people be most surprised to learn about you?
I am a HUGE Meatloaf and Neil Diamond music fan. When I’m making my pewter, I jam out to their music.
You live just outside Memphis in Brownsville, TN, but you’re very involved in Memphis. Tell us why you love small-town life and how you maintain that rural/urban balance.
Hmm, I love all things rural, from watching the crops through each season, to the cows grazing in the pasture, to just being away from it all. I drive past our farm each day on my way to the shop. We live in my husband’s great aunt’s home. Our home is our retreat from all the business and stress. We love gardening and our pool, and my home is also an ongoing project that I really enjoy working on. My husband has a demanding job in the city, and we enjoy our life just outside of the hustle and bustle. We also have over 75 family members living within 20 miles that we see regularly. I grew up in the city, so naturally, I love the country; Dan grew up on the farm and loves heading in each day. I want Jack to grow up on land that has been in our family since 1832. We enjoy the horses and cows. Tennessee gives one the opportunity to live a life on both fronts.
Where’s your favorite place you’ve ever traveled?
I am a Southerner, so my favorite place on earth would have been preKatrina New Orleans. Food, antiques and beautiful homes abound in my favorite area. One of my passions is cooking, and the city has as many different takes on gumbo as America has on patriotism.
And what’s the top place on your travel bucket list?
Ireland. I would like to see where my people came from, where I came from. I look forward to a trip over the pond to meet the Armours on that side and see what their daily walk is like.
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
I always tell people my life looks like a dream come true. In fact, it is, although behind the fairy tale is much hard work, strategic life choices and a never-failing obsession with my business. If someone has a dream of owning a business, they should look at their current place and ask what is the best road that will take them to their next chapter. I believe in surrounding yourself with people who will support you and are positive in all parts of your life. I always tell young folks to get as much education as possible — it opens many doors.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
My dogs, beautiful things and sweet tea!
A huge thanks to Kathleen for letting us steal some precious time during Tennessee Pewter Co.’s busiest month of the year! Also, thanks to photographer Emily Robbins for the beautiful images.