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Vermont's A Hard Place To Do Business? Darn Tough CEO Calls BS

A person stands with crossed arms on a staircase.
Elodie Reed
Darn Tough CEO Ric Cabot stands for a portrait in the Waterbury plant, formerly occupied by Keurig, where his wool sock company plans to expand operations.

On a bright, December morning, Darn Tough Chief Technology Officer Jim Decker balanced precariously on a table in the lobby of the Waterbury building the company was about to begin leasing.

Company CEO Ric Cabot egged Decker on as he stretched toward the New England region on a large map of the world that adorns the lobby wall. Small dots across the map mark the places where Keurig Dr Pepper, the company that used to occupy this building, operates. Decker reached up and slapped a Darn Tough sticker right over the state of Vermont.

For Darn Tough, there’s no need for stickers anywhere else: Vermont is the only place they operate. And as companies like thisbuilding’s former occupant have been scaling down here, Darn Tough has figured out a way to grow in the Green Mountain State.

A map with a Darn Tough sticker over Vermont.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Just before Darn Tough began leasing a space in Waterbury, company CTO Jim Decker placed a sticker on a map in the building's lobby.

Most Vermonters are probably familiar with the Darn Tough brand of durable, pricey wool socks with a lifetime guarantee.

The brand has been around for about 15 years, steadily growing its workforce to its current total of over 300. As it expands to Waterbury, in addition to its operations in Northfield, it plans to add about 100 more employees. As of January, the company said its starting wage is $15 an hour.

CEO Ric Cabot is bullish on his brand. He even claims to wear a single pair of socks for months at a time.

“They’re naturally antimicrobial, so they don’t smell. So I’ve been wearing these socks for, I would say, three months straight every day,” Cabot said.

While on a tour of Darn Tough’s new Waterbury space, Cabot asked me to smell those unwashed socks. I did. (While they didn’t stink and they seemed to be in good shape, there was an undeniable foot-like odor.)

A person's face next to a socked foot.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Henry gets a whiff of Ric Cabot's Darn Tough socked-foot.

So why this space, rather than an expansion out-of-state or elsewhere?

“It’s available. It’s big, we can fit it up as we need it,” Cabot said. “It’s a little closer to Chittenden County, which has, you know, the highest population in the state.”

Darn Tough is a product of Cabot Hosiery Mills, started up by Cabot’s father in 1978. For years, Cabot said, they made socks for other brands, like Abercrombie & Fitch and Kohl’s. But by the early 2000s, the business was struggling.

“We were insolvent. We were down to 35 people, we were running one shift," Cabot said. "And that's when Darn Tough was born."

At that point, the company decided to make its own premium socks under its own label.

“There was no choice. If we were going to continue, you know, we needed some sort of big idea and we needed it quickly,” Cabot said.

The outside of a building with blueish windows.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The exterior of Darn Tough's new building in Waterbury, formerly home to Keurig Dr Pepper.

Over the years,the operation grew to where it is today. And while Darn Tough has found success outside of Vermont’s borders, it has not gone the way of other Vermont brands that havesold to a larger public company (see: Keurig, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation).

But, Cabot said, they’ve had offers.

“We’re not for sale,” said Cabot. “We answer to two people: Our employees and our customers. So, no, we have no plans to sell.”

"I think Vermont's a great place to do business. You know, it's as easy or hard as you make it, and if it's hard, then you got to work harder." — Darn Tough CEO Ric Cabot

Cabot also takes a dim view of business leaders who’ve sold to larger companies. Asked whether he thinks Vermont is a difficult place to do business, Cabot is blunt.

“I think that’s defeatist thinking,” he said. “I think Vermont’s a great place to do business. You know, it’s as easy or hard as you make it, and if it’s hard, then you got to work harder.”

Put another way: “That’s bullsh--,” Cabot said.

A window view from a staircase of mountains and blue sky.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
The view from Darn Tough's new office and manufacturing space in the old Keurig Dr Pepper building in Waterbury.

As for how state government could help companies grow and succeed here, Cabot thinks the state needs to focus on retaining Vermonters who are already here.

“Vermont is a great place to raise a family,” he said. “Thank goodness we don’t have fires, and we don’t really have a lot of flooding. It’s rural, there’s plenty of room. It’s conservative, it’s liberal. It’s heaven, as far as I’m concerned.”

But ultimately, Cabot said, it’s not up to state government to encourage companies to grow here.

“The state can only do so much," he said. "You need entrepreneurs, you need people willing to risk everything. ... Keep people from leaving, and then more people will come.”

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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