As Lifetime Products prepares to move into its new $115-million kayak manufacturing and distribution facility in Knoxville, the CEO who spearheaded the site search says the location “was obviously the best option.”
“I really bonded with the people of Tennessee when I visited here,” says Richard Hendrickson, president and CEO of the Utah-based company that makes and distributes a wide variety of outdoor recreation equipment and furniture.
“We will start manufacturing our kayak here; the enthusiasm for paddling and water in the Knoxville area plays well into our product line,” he says.
It’s a common refrain, says Kayla Smith, marketing coordinator for the Knoxville Chamber. “When Lifetime Products announced last year that they were coming to Knoxville, our Urban Wilderness and outdoor environment was a huge part of that,” she notes. “We try to take all of our prospects out to see the Urban Wilderness in downtown Knoxville whenever they come into town for a visit. They can be in the Urban Wilderness in about five minutes from our office. I don’t know of any other place in the country where you can do that.”
The Urban Wilderness is the anchor of Legacy Parks in Knoxville. A 50-mile trail system brings the best of wilderness adventure right into the heart of East Tennessee’s largest city.
“This is a unique marketing attribute for the city,” says Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation in Knoxville. “Starting with a vision in 2007, the Urban Wilderness has become the primary access point that enables people to enjoy 1,000 acres of public land. What was once a disadvantage for Knoxville has become a huge advantage and one of the area’s biggest selling points.”
So big that Hendrickson did not have to think twice about bringing his 30-year-old company to Knoxville. Upon completion in April 2017, Lifetime’s 720,000-sq.-ft. plant will employ 125 people making kayaks. Employment is projected to increase to 500 by 2022.
Knoxville Passes Every Test
“The most important site factor was proximity to our Eastern U.S. distribution channels,” says Hendrickson, who began working at Lifetime as a welder in 1988. “Kayaks are very freight-intensive. We needed to be positioned in an economical location. We also needed a site on a rail line. We are an extremely power-intensive plant, and we use a lot of water. Knoxville stood out in all areas.”
Labor was the deal closer. “We need great employees,” he adds. “We need people who want to work long and hard for the company. We spent at least a year actively visiting sites. We looked at the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas and Tennessee — states that were geographically aligned for distributing products to the East Coast.”
The search ended in Knoxville when the company chose a site in Eastbridge Business Park in northeast Knox County. Lifetime purchased the former GE building in the park for $6.2 million.
“The Knoxville Chamber has been absolutely phenomenal to work with,” Hendrickson says. “Their people have been extremely quick to react to our needs. They have dug into details like utilities and rail service and government entities. They have orchestrated meetings at a moment’s notice when necessary. They are one of the key reasons that the Knoxville expansion process has gone so smoothly for us.”
Bikes Spell Dollars for the Region
If Evans has her way, many other companies will soon join Lifetime and make Knoxville their home. “We’ve seen incredible regional use of our parks. We’re attracting people from Chattanooga, Asheville, Virginia, etc.,” she says. “An economic impact study done by the Howard Baker Institute at the University of Tennessee last year showed that mountain biking alone delivers $14 million a year to this community. We’re now building a full destination bike park — the first in the Southeast. People will choose to come here and stay.”
That’s exactly what Lifetime Products did, and Hendrickson advises other business leaders to follow suit.
“Three basic business drivers — location, utilities and people — are the main reasons why more companies should consider this area,” he says. “Knoxville excels in each.”