For more than 100 years, a company called Woolen Mills produced cloth and military uniforms in Albemarle County. It was, for a time, one of the largest mills in the U.S., but it closed in the 1960’s. Now, with state help, a new enterprise is taking over, replacing broken windows and dusty plant floors with a 21st century enterprise.
Ten years ago, a small group of men founded a company called Willow Tree to manufacture something modern:
“We build apps and websites and over the top video experiences for some of the largest brands in the world," says CEO Tobias Dengel. "Our clients include National Geographic, Fox Sports and HBO.”
From the beginning, he says, the founders had something to prove. “That can get built in San Francisco or New York, we could do right here, and we were going to do it despite the fact that we were located in Central Virginia.”
Since then they’ve discovered that success and growth happened because of their location – enabling people to interact in one place rather than working from home.
“The worst thing you can do to a human being is put them in isolation, put them in solitary confinement, yet we’re doing it every day," Dengel explains. "Why is that happening? The reasons are two: In large cities commutes are now over two hours, and real estate costs about four times what it costs here.”
In its first decade Willow tree grew to more than 200 people and the firm hopes to have 330 on the payroll by 2020. The state was confident enough to give it a $1.5 million grant and provided the county with $500,000 to help with the transition from an historic site to a newly renovated space. Employees expect to be working in their new home along the Rivanna River – convenient to a bike trail and offering plug-ins for electric cars – by the end of next year.