When asked to imagine a company that’s achieved massive entrepreneurial success, most people envision Silicon Valley giants or tech-focused startups. But what about handmade tiles from Ann Arbor, Michigan?
Entrepreneurial success isn’t just reserved for tech whizzes or business school standouts. Success also waits for passionate leaders dedicated to developing their craft. Nawal Motawi, the owner and creative director at Motawi Tileworks, has proven that a driven, creative mind can turn art into a booming, innovative enterprise.
Since founding Motawi Tileworks in 1992, Nawal turned a one-woman operation into a nationally recognized business with over 30 employees. Motawi Tileworks has also won several awards including a spot on the 2017 Forbes Small Giants List and the Michigan Women Owned Small Business Award. Her business also practices the Toyota style of lean manufacturing and the open-book management taught by the legendary Jack Stack and his Great Game of Business.
The tiles created at Motawi aren’t your typical household flooring. Instead, each piece is a one-of-a-kind, expertly handcrafted piece of art depicting elegant patterns, colorful forest scenery, animal antics and more. Although they can contribute to the greater whole of any room, they’re also works of art in themselves. Motawi tiles can even be seen at places like Disneyland, the University of Michigan Medical Center and the libraries at Yale.
Nawal Motawi is just one of the many creative entrepreneurs thinking outside the big business as company leaders and culture creators. But just like with any big idea, it all has to start with a great passion.
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Discovering a Love of Art
After digging into her background, one could almost call Nawal an entrepreneur by nature. Considering the strong, independent and free-thinking people who raised her, it’s no surprise she blazed her own path to success. As the daughter of a feminist, artistic stay-at-home mother and a scientist father who worked at major corporations, Nawal’s business sense and craftiness were nurtured from a very young age. Going to college was simply a given in the Motawi household, but so was defying the status quo.
Though her mother didn’t necessarily regret staying home to raise her five children, “she was always a little bit restless,” remembers Nawal. A staunch supporter of women’s rights and equal pay, her mother instilled in Nawal a desire to push against traditional female gender roles. She encouraged Nawal to “be what you want to be.”
And what Nawal wanted to be was an artist. “Art and I discovered each other in seventh grade,” says Nawal. By the time college came, Nawal easily decided to major in fine arts at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
An admitted perfectionist, Nawal quickly grew disenchanted with art school’s subjectivity. She felt instructors praised sounding impressive over actually being impressive. “It didn’t really matter how technically excellent your work was. If you could tell a story and make it sound impressive, then it would be good,” Nawal remembers. “That’s a lot of style without substance, and I couldn’t do it.”
So she dropped out and hit the road.
An avid lover of the outdoors, Nawal explored a path that allowed her to live in nature. She came across what she called the “crazy bus school,” a team which taught environmental education classes to students while they lived outdoors and traveled cross-country in a school bus. Though she looks back fondly on the experience, Nawal quickly grew tired of the nomadic lifestyle and—after acknowledging a bubbling desire to run a business—finally decided to go back to art school.
Arriving back on campus with a renewed energy and mindset, Nawal pushed her previous pessimism aside and embraced the aspects of art that she loved. That’s when she discovered a passion for ceramics, which would soon lead her to a career in tile making.
Finally, Nawal says, “I knew where I was going.”
Firing Up a New Business
Soon after graduating college, Nawal became determined to launch a successful business career as an artist. However, though art came naturally to Nawal, business ownership did not.
Nawal began devouring all the knowledge she could about running a thriving company. Business-focused publications like Inc. Magazine and columns by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham became her business education. “They took me on a learning journey about business that I didn’t have [yet]. That I’m still on,” says Nawal.
Her first “store” was actually a stall at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Nawal’s unique, gorgeous tiles instantly resonated with locals. Soon, other businesses began approaching Nawal about selling her tiles at their own shops, and she was getting commissioned for custom installations. Motawi was taking off.
As business flourished, Nawal grew out of the small garage and moved her company into a 1600 square foot studio just outside of town. Now with two kilns and a long list of orders, Motawi began growing her employee base. But with so much happening so quickly, Nawal knew the importance of keeping her eyes on the prize: She was determined to build a growth-focused business that also fostered a strong, secure culture.
Nawal envisioned Motawi as a place where crafters and creators could experience fulfilling, rewarding and stable employment year-round—something that’s not guaranteed in the arts. Because of significant slow times, it’s not unusual for crafts-based companies to frequently lay off employees or hire seasonally.
With a dream to evolve Motawi into an example of a healthy, artisan workplace, Nawal knew she had to discover a better system.
Going From Good to Great
It was 2001 and business at Motawi Tileworks was steady, especially for her niche market. But Nawal wanted more than steady for her company. She wanted greatness and growth for Motawi Tileworks, and she needed to figure out how to achieve it.
Nawal began researching cutting-edge business tactics, most notably lean manufacturing. That’s when she stumbled upon the Toyota style by University of Michigan professor Jeffrey K. Liker. With a reputation for manufacturing high-quality products through lean management principles and streamlined systems, Liker preaches that Toyota Production System can be applied to business models outside the auto industry.
As a lifelong Michigander, taking cues from the auto industry wasn’t a huge stretch for Nawal—but could the same principles really work for an arts-based company? Knowing Liker lived right in Ann Arbor, she took the initiative and called him directly.
Liker was immediately interested in helping out the local business. He not only agreed to meet with Nawal—he also brought in a Ph.D. candidate named Eduardo Lander. Eduardo firmly believed the Toyota style could be applied to industries opposite of Toyota’s, but he needed some case studies. He thought Motawi Tileworks would be perfect, and Nawal agreed.
Motawi was encouraged by Lander to run a lean business with no excess. That meant practicing “full employment.” Essentially, they should carefully hire the exact number of full-time employees necessary year-round. No more. No less. And getting this exact number right would take significant planning.
This mentality carried over into inventory as well. Now, Motawi could avoid not only wasting money on producing excess inventory, but by carefully planning when to create stock, they could also focus on keeping employees working during the off-season.
The Toyota style worked wonders, and Motawi still uses many of its techniques today. “I want level employment and am willing to use inventory as a buffer,” says Nawal. “When we plan … we do it 12 months in advance. We actually set our production targets at the beginning of the year.
“We didn’t become manufacturers until we learned [the Toyota method],” says Nawal.
One of her favorite takeaways from the Toyota style is the Kanban system. Check out this video of Nawal explaining how it works during a PBS tour of Motawi Tileworks:
Since successfully integrating the Toyota style, Nawal constantly opens herself up to better ways to run her business. After the Great Recession of 2008 hit hard, she took a cue from the Great Game of Business and began practicing open-book management. By giving her employees access—and accountability—the company bounced back stronger than ever.
By embracing new opportunities instead of sticking with what was comfortable, Nawal and her team were rewarded with rising success and the confidence that they could tackle any challenges together.
The Best Leaders Never Stop Learning
Looking back on Nawal’s career, it’s clear she’s no stranger to soaking up knowledge. And just because she’s already reached many career high points doesn’t mean she’ll stop anytime soon. Nawal may have tile manufacturing down to a science, but she knows there’s room to become a better leader on a personal level.
“I think after the donothing retreat which I went to last April, I’m more aware of how I need to be here at Motawi Tileworks. I haven’t always been super aware of how I come across and it’s taken me years to figure that out,” Nawal recounts. “My words have ten times power around here, [but I] don’t think of myself as a big, tough, fancy, powerful person. It’s taken me years to sort that out.”
It’s a valuable lesson for aspiring and veteran leaders alike. Even the most ego-driven among us knows that deep down, we’re just humans with our own flaws and insecurities. But to our employees, every word and action has meaning. A leader’s off-hand comment can linger in an employee’s mind for weeks.
Our leadership positions come with responsibility not just to our company—but also to our people.
This, in particular, is a lesson that Nawal admits she’s still working on today. However, just like in her business—and her life—she’ll never, ever stop learning.