Garnet Hill's Dilemma: Could Moving Jobs From North Country Lead To More N.H. Jobs Overall?

Feb 20, 2015

Garnet Hill, the nationally known clothing and bedding retailer in Franconia, is moving about one fifth of its 200 jobs to Exeter. That distresses some in the North Country, but Garnet Hill’s president said it is part of a long-term strategy to increase business.

“We are a business that is very different from what we were five, six, seven years ago in the sense that over half of our business is done in women’s fashion apparel and 84 percent of our business is done online,” said Claire Spofford, who took over as president about a year ago.

So, Spofford said, this summer she is opening a 36,000 square-foot facility in Exeter for designers, those working in a photo studio now in Bethlehem and marketing people.

“Our designers and our merchants need to go to New York on a very regular basis. They travel Europe for inspiration. They have to be able to get out and about.

“Over half of our business is women’s fashion apparel. That’s a tough business to be in. You’ve got to be connected to what is going on in the world. You have to understand what is going on from a fashion standpoint.”

“Digital marketing resources are critical to our business now.”

Spofford said she isn’t sure yet how many of those 40 employees will move to Exeter.

But she says being in Exeter – and much closer to Boston and New York - will also make it easier for designers and others to work with marketing partners, get new ideas and ultimately expand.

“I could see us doubling in size in the next five to seven years and I would love to see that.”

She says that would bring jobs back to Franconia and add jobs in Exeter. 

And she says there are "absolutely" no plans to move all 200 jobs south.

“Certainly someone could say ‘Oh yeah, we want to move the company.’ I think that would be a big mistake. This way we have the stability of three quarters of the work force remaining here.

“If I do my job and the team does their job I think it is going to be really exciting for Franconia, honestly, and Exeter and New Hampshire.”

Garnet Hill President Claire Spofford: "There is a lot of potential for this brand. This brand is, honestly, too well kept a secret"
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

But the loss of 40 North Country jobs worries some local officials.

Brad Bailey is a state representative from Franconia.

“Every business must do what is best for them, but we work so hard to attract good paying jobs to the North Country. So, when we lose jobs like those at Garnet Hill it makes it difficult for local families, which in turn has a negative ripple effect to our local communities.”

And the move away from Franconia puzzled one of Garnet Hill’s past presidents, Russ Gaitskill.  He headed the company for 13 years before leaving last year. Not once, he says, did he think about splitting up the company.

He said he doesn’t see an economic or strategic reason for the move.

“I think there may be some personal preferences in terms of where top management would like to live but I can’t think of anything specifically that would create any advantage.”

Spofford dismissed the idea she would move part of the company to be closer to a big city.

“This isn’t about me at all. I am a skier. I am a hiker. I am an outdoors person. I love it here. It is beautiful. I just don’t think we can get where we need to go with the business without making some changes.”

She said she will split her time between Franconia and Exeter and admitted having the company split will pose a logistical problem, but said the advantages outweigh the challenge.

She declined to disclose the cost of the move but said it was “a significant investment” that shows “a big vote of confidence” by the parent company - HSN Inc..

All this could eventually be good for New Hampshire says, Carmen Lorentz, the director of the state’s division of economic growth.

“Well, the company tells us this is part of a long-term growth plan, so we’re very excited to hear that and very happy to work with them and support them as they grow.”

But in the short term, moving the jobs south is a blow to the North Country.

And it will take years to determine whether the strategy will strengthen Garnet Hill - a company founded in 1976 by two locals - and bring jobs back to Franconia.