From advanced manufacturing to the life sciences, Asheville is a business and entrepreneurial hub with a strong focus on innovation. Aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, is set to open a new Asheville site in 2022, creating jobs for more than 800 people, and the city’s notable industries include climate and environment research, technology, craft, outdoor products and recreation – the latter a particular growth area.
Though Asheville is perhaps best known for its music, food and art scenes, the city is also fertile ground for entrepreneurial ambitions in any field, at whatever scale. Three of the city’s business experts tell their stories.
In 2013, Alex Matisse founded ceramic company East Fork with his wife, Connie, and their friend John Vigeland. It now employs 125 people and ships its dishware, designed and made in Asheville, across the US. We speak to Matisse about what drew him to clay and his plans for expansion.
I come from a family of artists and clay is a medium that I have always been attracted to: it’s tactile and process-driven. There’s a lot of equipment and I love the whole process of firing it and finishing it. I moved here for an apprenticeship with potter Matt Jones and started doing my own kiln openings in 2010. In the early days everything was fired in a wood kiln; it was just me, making 1,000 pieces a year. Now we make about 350,000 pieces; next year we’ll make 500,000. Our ability to make enough has always been a constraint, never our ability to sell. But that’s going to change: we’re just completing a big expansion and we’ll soon have the capacity to make about a million pieces a year. Working at this scale is pretty astounding.
Our pottery is well considered and durable. It feels great in your hands, the colours are beautiful and the forms come from a potter, not an industrial designer, so there’s a lot of subtlety. On top of all this is the way we run our business: how transparent we are in our commitment to the welfare of our employees and the decisions we make. We recently raised our minimum wage to $20 (€17.50) an hour. We cook lunch for our employees twice a week. People like to feel part of what we are building.
Connie is from Los Angeles and I’m from Massachusetts. John is from Minnesota. But now Asheville is our home. The more we’re here, the more committed we become to the community. Part of our vision for 2025 is to set up a new campus. We want to find a larger space and build a new factory. We’ll have a restaurant, a shop and an event space; we’ll have on-site childcare for our employees. There’ll be lots of tours and a big cafeteria. We want to become the largest dinnerware producer in the US. At the heart of it, we are a manufacturing company with a beautiful brand skin on it. We are creating real jobs for people that can support them.
Michael Craft has worked for New Belgium Brewing for 20 years and he moved to North Carolina six years ago. He explains why the beer company expanded into Asheville.
New Belgium started with co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan brewing beer in their basement about 30 years ago. Today we have two facilities – one in Fort Collins, Colorado, and one in Asheville – and more than 700 employees.
But why Asheville? We are proud of being sustainable, so it didn’t feel great to make beer in Fort Collins, then ship it to Brooklyn. So we found a brownfield site in Asheville and turned it into what feels like a park. We brew most of our beers
here. One of the biggest hurdles is to ensure that beers brewed in Fort Collins taste like those brewed in Asheville. We have a taste panel every day to guarantee that they’re always top notch. The capacity in Asheville is just under half a million bottles. We now have about 170 employees here. We’ve got a public Liquid Center, a tap room. We also sponsor non-profits; in October we hosted a parade highlighting how bicycle friendly Asheville is.
The River Arts District is very creative and inviting. I am now hiking more than ever and you cannot find bad beer or bad food in Asheville.
Footwear and life-jacket brand Astral was founded in Asheville in 2002. Sales manager Bryan Owen tells us why this is a boom time for outdoors brands in North Carolina.
I’m from Georgia but I love the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially its art and business communities, as well as its old-fashioned southern charm. And it’s a creative environment.
You get all four seasons here. I’m a paddler and I have the chance to go paddling or canoeing all year round. You can become a dedicated, expert paddler in Asheville. People come from across the globe for whitewater kayaking here. The city’s Green River Narrows Race is the world’s best-known extreme whitewater race.
Astral was founded in 2002 by Philip Curry. Our original product was life jackets. Because of the kayaking scene and also the community of artists and craftspeople that he got to know, this was the perfect place for him to start Astral. As the company grew, Curry went to Asia to grow our manufacturing base and helped us to develop footwear. He often comes back to Asheville but he moved to Seattle to help grow the business. Astral has a small staff and I’m the sales manager. I work with our network of sales reps and retail stores throughout the US.
Each year we see new start-ups and brands in the outdoor space. There is an abundance of outdoor brands from this area. We have kayak manufacturers, for example, and people making climbing or mountain-biking products. This area was once primarily known for its textile industry. Asheville has a long history of building things and making materials out of needle and thread. That has evolved to include making gear and clothing.
Creatives attract other creatives to the area. The art and music scenes are thriving in Asheville. This city is known throughout the Southeast as a hub for art and is becoming even more so for business, music and outdoor sports. There just isn’t anywhere quite like this.