ALTOONA, Pa. — Don Cella was sure that he was going to be a businessman someday. While he was right about that, he never dreamed he would end up as the owner of a tile and ceramics company.
When he arrived at Penn State Altoona as a freshman, Cella was determined to earn a degree in architectural design from University Park, then go into real estate development. But about halfway through his first semester, he realized that just wasn’t the right fit for him — he was more interested in learning how to run a business.
During a meeting with his adviser to determine the best course of action for his new career goals, Cella learned about the Sheetz Fellows program, an initiative that recently had been started by Steve and Nancy Sheetz. The program, now in its eighth year, provides mentoring opportunities, academic challenges, and resources for students with an entrepreneurial mindset. Within two days of that meeting, Cella decided to stay at Altoona and declared a dual major of marketing management and entrepreneurship. He became heavily involved in both Sheetz Fellows and Enactus, then known as SIFE, a global non-profit student organization.
“I’m not the classroom-setting type,” Cella admitted. “I was never that academically driven, so the opportunities for hands-on experience and discussion in those organizations really interested me. It seemed like there were going to be a lot of exciting things happening at Altoona that I didn’t want to miss.”
As part of the Sheetz Fellows program, Cella was paired with mentor Rick Cyman, vice president of store development at Sheetz. “That was an amazing experience," he said. "I was able to attend board meetings and gain a lot of knowledge about how a company should be run, handling situations, and managing multiple projects at once. Those were all things I wouldn’t get in a classroom.”
By his senior year in 2012, Cella felt confident that he would graduate and begin his career at Sheetz. He hoped someday he could move home to Pittsburgh if the right job popped up in the area.
In the very definition of serendipity, something of interest to Cella did come about in November of that year. His father saw an ad for an upcoming ceramics equipment auction in Pittsburgh and called to let him know about it. “In high school, I was really into ceramics,” Cella explained. “Most of my junior and senior years were spent in the school’s pottery room. I just loved it, and I always wanted to get back into clay some way. My dad thought it was something I’d enjoy doing.”
So father and son decided to attend the auction to take a look at the equipment and find out its cost. “If it was going cheap enough, I figured I would fly by the seat of my pants and just go for it," said Cella. It turns out that the equipment was dirt cheap, and what would eventually become Limelight Tile & Ceramics was born.
Cella said that he was immediately excited and nervous about his purchase. “I knew there wasn’t going to be a textbook to guide me or give me answers. I knew it’d be a challenge, but I like challenges,” he said. By the spring of 2014, Cella was set up in a Strip District building and testing the production process.
A year later, the showroom was open. “It’s been a lot of trial and error, because making tile can be a difficult process," said Cella. "There are different things we’ve been working on for the past three years to solve, like how to make a glaze work or keep tiles flat.”
Part of what makes Limelight unique is that all of its tiles are custom made in the building’s production room by Cella and one or two other employees. As Cella explained, most commercial tiles found at home-improvement stores are made by robots overseas. Some artists make tile with their hands by pounding on clay with a hammer. Limelight works with presses.
“We make molds by hand and hand-load the clay into the press," said Cella. "We trim by hand with Exacto knives and hand spray our glazes. There are very few companies still doing that in the United States.”
Cella creates the tile designs himself, inspired by the things he sees around him or by trends in the market. He claims to have a love-hate relationship with the production process, saying ceramics can be finicky. “We’ve had to jump over so many different hurdles because it’s a touchy process. There’s always a new problem to solve, which I love, but it can be wearying. I am very proud of our product, though. It’s beautiful. We have a lot of cool designs and over 300 glazes," he said.
Limelight does custom work for homes and businesses across the country and has had inquiries from Canada and Australia. Cella is hopeful business will eventually take off outside of the U.S. So far, the company’s biggest order was for a bar in Pittsburgh, but Cella’s favorite project was an intricate backsplash for a home depicting a map of Pittsburgh and its three rivers. He said it took months for him and his team to create a gray glaze that matched the kitchen countertop: “We probably had over 100 tests to get the colors to match. But what’s great is in that long process, we ended up creating many other colors we can use for different projects.”
Limelight recently signed a license agreement with the Homer Laughlin China Company, to design, produce, and sell a line of porcelain tiles that embrace the iconic style of Fiesta, the company's popular dinnerware product.
The Limelight crew spent the past year creating glazes to perfectly match Fiesta colors and designing tiles to match the brand. Fiesta provided the model and Limelight assumed responsibility for making the tiles along with marketing. “It’s been really nice exposure for us because there are so many Fiesta fanatics. People who might not have seen our tiles otherwise could see a picture on Instagram tagged with ‘Fiesta’, and suddenly they want a Fiesta backsplash and other tiles for their bathroom. That’s really opened up some doors. We’ve had Fiesta orders from around the country.”
Cella is pleased with the direction his company is moving, both in this partnership and on its own. In 2016, Limelight was named Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Pittsburgh Business Times. This past year Cella purchased new equipment, including two kilns that increased the size of orders Limelight can take, as well as a 135-ton press that can push out about four times as many tiles as the company was able to do previously. The team also developed a new drying process that takes about 24 hours compared to the weeks it once did.
Cella also bought a big green truck that will be turned into a showroom on wheels. “Until now, we’d schedule an appointment with someone and go into their conference room where we could only take a handful of examples. With the truck, we can take more with us and show tiles in a spacious place, plus offer coffee and donuts," he said. Cella plans to take the truck on road trips across the country for meetings with potential clients, as well.
Cella knows he has not even begun to find all of the potential ways Limelight can grow, and he’s excited to enjoy continued success: “Until that equipment auction, I didn’t think I’d be doing this as a career. I thought maybe I’d be 57 and get a pottery wheel and do craft shows or something. But since that November, it’s just been a whirlwind.”
A good whirlwind — one Cella doesn’t mind being caught up in.