New Balance is running with a pandemic-driven tailwind at its back.
The Boston-based shoe and apparel company plans to employ about 210 people at its new factory on Lowell Street in Methuen by the end of the year, or more than three times the 60 jobs it promised state officials that it would add there.
The reason? A surge in sales in 2021 amid consumers’ increased interest in walking and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another key factor: the overseas shipping challenges the pandemic sparked. New Balance chief executive Joe Preston said the privately held company’s revenue hit $4.4 billion last year, up about 10 percent from 2019 and about 30 percent from 2020, when sales were interrupted early in the pandemic.
Preston said New Balance already employs 90 people at the 80,000-square-foot plant, which opened in January. Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito visited on Monday to see it in action, along with several other politicians from the area, including US Representative Lori Trahan and Mayor Neil Perry of Methuen. State officials in 2019 approved $900,000 in tax credits to help subsidize the $20 million project; the city of Methuen pitched in with $272,000 in property tax relief over 10 years.
The Methuen site was picked in part because it is near New Balance’s Lawrence operations and a key supplier, Dela Inc., in Haverhill.
“We have continued to try to control our destiny by developing local supplier bases,” Preston said. “When you’re the only manufacturer in the space, you really need to be creative and innovative in trying to develop new domestic sources.”
It’s a busy time for New Balance. The company’s development arm is scheduled to open a massive indoor track and field house next month across the street from its Brighton headquarters. The complex also includes the new Roadrunner music venue.
But it hasn’t always been smooth running for the company during the pandemic. In December 2020, New Balance told 60-plus employees in its Brighton factory overlooking the Mass. Turnpike that the plant would be shuttered; Preston said about one-quarter of those displaced employees are now working in Methuen or Lawrence. New Balance has held onto that Brighton property and plans to repurpose it at some point.
The Methuen plant was originally envisioned as an innovation hub to test new manufacturing techniques and concepts, but the company needed to add more workers there to keep up with demand for its signature 990 line of running shoes. New Balance’s manufacturing operations include three plants in Maine that together employ 680 people, the factory in Lawrence where another 230 work, and the Methuen plant. The company also employs about 1,050 people among its other sites in Brighton and Lawrence.
Even with those New England factories, the vast majority of New Balance shoes are made overseas, including at a company-owned plant in the United Kingdom or at contract manufacturers in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Preston said New Balance does export many of its shoes made in New England because of the international interest in buying US-made footwear.
“The demand is really strong for it, and it’s getting stronger every day right now,” Preston said.
Domestic manufacturing is an important priority for chairman Jim Davis, who owns the company with his wife, Anne, Preston said, although it usually means those shoes are more expensive to produce.
“It’s really purpose-driven,” Preston said. “It’s just a belief of contributing to the community, manufacturing being a big part of that.”