Pendleton Woolen Mills’ new CEO spins company into the future


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// Photo by Eric Näslund

On a Friday afternoon, Mark Korros, the 61-year old CEO of Pendleton Woolen Mills, is in the company’s Portland home showroom, where the Native American-style blankets Pendleton has been making for a century share space with a relatively new product line: jacquard towels fashioned out of cotton, not Pendleton’s trademark wool. In just a few years, the towels have become a several-million-dollar business for the iconic brand, which celebrates its 104th birthday this year.

A longtime apparel executive who most recently was CEO of Seattle-based Filson, Korros took the reins at Pendleton in February. His goal is to continue down the path the company has been following for several years: updating a historic Oregon brand for the modern consumer. “We need to constantly provide loyal, ongoing customers with new products that excite them,” says Korros, a Kentucky native who wore the company’s classic board shirt as a kid. “But we also need to create products that will attract new customers.”

Incorporated in 1909, Pendleton employs about 900 people, including 223 in the company’s Pendleton and Washougal woolen mills. In addition to 70 retail stores around the country, Pendleton operates a wholesale business, and company products are distributed in 25 countries around the world.

Pendleton Woolen Mills

CEO: Mark Korros

Incorporated: 1909

Employees: 900

Factoid: 427,000 sheep shorn for Pendleton annually

Although the family-owned company took a hit during the economic downturn, Pendleton has since been on an upward trajectory, says Korros, who declined to reveal revenues. “We’re definitely in expansion mode,” says Korros, who spoke to Oregon Business about a month before participating in a classic company ritual: attending the Pendleton Round-up with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. “It’s like the Superbowl around here,” he says wryly.

Helping power the company’s growth is an array of new initiatives aimed at achieving a mix of the traditional and the contemporary. Korros is also alert to global apparel- industry trends, such as the push to bring back manufacturing to the U.S. and a surge of interest in sustainable fabrics.

In 2014, for example, Pendleton will debut a spring version of the Portland Collection, a 3-year-old line of modern textiles featuring updated styling, eco-friendly fabrics and fresh colors, including custom-print silk dresses and reversible jacquard coats that have been featured in the likes of Vogue and GQ.

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// Photos by Eric Näslund

Introduced this fall, the new Thomas Kay collection is steeped in the past. Named after the company’s Yorkshire, England-born founder, the collection blends British and American styles; i.e., notch-lapel blazers in tweed fabrics and an axe fashioned from high carbon steel and an Appalachian hickory handle.

Other design initiatives include a new, wearable accessories line — leather bags, belts, hats — and a planned expansion of the company’s outerwear business capitalizing on company expertise with wool. “Look for Pendleton to reclaim its position as a major outdoor retailer,” says Korros, emphasizing the growing popularity of merino wool as a base layer. A Nike-esque innovation team is also working on the cutting edge to develop sustainable, lighter-weight, wrinkle-free and stain-free wools.

Awash in new fabric launches, Pendleton, as Korros observes, is an apparel maker of many dimensions. The company collaborates with other brands, most recently with Bugaboo to provide a custom lining for strollers. Licensing is another source of revenue, with the biggest deal coming from Hood River Distillers, distributor of Pendleton whiskey.

About that domestic manufacturing push: Today iconic American brands are all the rage, one reason Pendleton is doing so well in Japan, Korros says. But for the most part, this signature American brand manufactures its product abroad — on almost all continents except Australia, where the company sources much of its wool. Despite the outsourcing, “‘Made in the USA’ is definitely a trend for us,” Korros says. Starting next year, the entire Portland and Thomas Kay collections will be made in the U.S. Korros also touts the longevity of the company’s two mills. “There are only five woolen mills left in the U.S. We own two of them.”

In 2013 Pendleton still derives the bulk of its sales revenue from the classic Pendleton line: woolen shirts, skirts, pants and jackets that appeal to the company’s core 45- to 70-year-old demographic. In the old days, classic Pendleton defined the company — its past, present and future. Today, says Korros, Pendleton aims “to support any type of activity a person might have,” be it playing soccer, attending a cocktail party or hanging out on the beach with a fresh cotton jacquard towel.

He sums up the company’s multipronged strategy with a wardrobe analogy: “The No. 1 goal is to bring high-quality products to market that are relevant to consumers — and fill their closets.”