Editor’s Note 9/18/18: VF Corp announced today that it signed a 12-year lease at 1551 Wewatta Street for its global headquarters. The company will relocate its outdoor brands to the LoDo location and will occupy the entire 10-story, 285,000 square-foot building with an estimated capacity of 1,200 people.
When VF Corporation, the parent company of outdoor brands including the North Face, JanSport, and Smartwool, announced three weeks ago that it was moving its headquarters from North Carolina to Denver and co-locating five of its brands in the Mile High City, it marked the latest victory for Colorado in what has been a busy year courting the outdoor industry. Last summer, Denver won the bid to host the highly coveted, thrice-annual Outdoor Retailer trade shows, which left Utah after 22 years. In January, the popular fitness app, Strava, announced it would open a new office in LoDo. Already, Colorado is home to iconic outdoor brands like Kelty, Osprey, and Sea to Summit. Adding the likes of the North Face and JanSport only strengthens the notion that the North American outdoor industry—which generates 229,000 jobs and $28 billion annually in consumer spending in Colorado alone—is gravitating toward the Centennial State as its center.
But Colorado is hardly the only state with strong outdoor recreation and economy, and each time a company relocates here, the state from which it comes feels an economic blow. In fact, addressing that economic competition is one of the reasons Colorado and seven other states drafted and signed the Confluence Accords last month—a first-of-its-kind partnership that outlines shared values and practices within the multi-billion dollar industry. Part of the Accords established rules for engagement as states look to court additional industry business. Interestingly, North Carolina, the state from which VF Corp’s headquarters is leaving, and Colorado, the welcome recipient, are both signatories to the Accords, which were ratified just two weeks before VF Corp’s announcement.
So did the Confluence Accords have any impact on VF Corp as it shopped for a new location? Not according to its CEO Steve Rendle, who spoke with reporters Thursday afternoon during a roundtable at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “We were already in motion before [the Confluence Accords] came into play,” Rendle says. “We understood what they were about, we respect what they stand for, but that was not part of any of our conversations. We were already well into play looking for new locations.”
Rendle says that VF Corp was considering moving its headquarters and bringing its outdoor brands to a central location for several years, and that over the past 10 months the company pursued relocation aggressively. While he admits there was disappointment in North Carolina, he points out that the state isn’t losing as many jobs as people might think.
Only between 80 and 90 jobs—senior leadership positions at VF Corp—are leaving Greensboro, North Carolina as the company brings its headquarters to Denver, he says. Moreover, none of the five VF Corp brands—the North Face, JanSport, Smartwool, Eagle Creek, and Altra Running—relocating to Denver are currently based in North Carolina. The North Face, Jan Sport, and Eagle Creek are moving from California, while Altra is based in Utah and Smartwool is moving its leadership across the Continental Divide from Steamboat Springs to Denver. As part of the same restructuring, VF Corp is spinning off its jeans brands—Lee and Wrangler—into a new company that will be headquartered in Greensboro. Rendle says that employees will be moving from Kansas City to Greensboro to work for the denim companies and therefore “it’s really net neutral from an employee standpoint.”
North Carolina may not take a drastic economic hit, but VF Corp’s relocation is a boon for Colorado, which offered the company $27 million in tax incentives if it brings 800 high-paying jobs to the area by 2026. And while the Centennial State eagerly welcomes the new business, it did not “poach” VF Corp from North Carolina, according to Luis Benitez, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Office. “We did not solicit [VF Corp], they approached us,” he says. Benitez, who was one of the primary minds behind the Confluence Accords and who simultaneously worked with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office to bring in VF Corp, says that when companies begin conversations about moving to Colorado, non-disclosure agreements prevent him from calling his counterparts in other states and giving them a heads up.
By chance, Benitez was actually in North Carolina the day after news of VF Corp’s decision broke, and he was able to sit down with David Knight, who runs the outdoor recreation office there. “We were able to have a conversation and discuss the process,” Benitez says. “Obviously, there’s disappointment, but there’s also friendliness. The biggest strength of the Accords is that we have a relationship and through these things, we talk.” Moreover, Benitez notes that these decisions are not made by the states—it’s not as though Colorado could simply decide to bring the North Face and other companies here. “It’s a company’s decision, not ours,” he says. “Those moves are a reality of the marketplace.”
Still, the realities of the marketplace are increasingly favoring Colorado, which over the past several years is emerging as a preferred hub for outdoor industry business. Asked whether he thinks the recent moves solidify Colorado as the focal point of the industry, Benitez wouldn’t say directly. “If [the industry] is building a national voice and national momentum, we have to have some place to point to to say ‘this is where the conversation lives, this is where innovation happens,'” he says. “If we are currently the voice of that momentum, then great. We take that responsibility very seriously.”