After word got out three years ago that The Pantry Inc. had long-range plans to move its headquarters from Sanford to Cary, CEO Peter Sodini thought Sanford’s leaders might try to talk him out of it. To his surprise, they didn’t. “I think we were just kind of overlooked.” That’s hard to believe, considering The Pantry had been in Sanford nearly 40 years and employed hundreds in a city of about 25,000. Since 1967, it has grown into the nation’s 317th-largest public company, grossing more than $8 billion last year through more than 1,650 convenience stores in 11 states. Its primary brand is Kangaroo Express.
In July, the company finally went ahead with its plans, moving 233 jobs 30 miles up U.S. 1 to Wake County. “You’ve got a larger population base,” Sodini says. “It’s easier recruiting. In the past, we’ve had very little luck getting administrative folks to consider driving from Raleigh down to Sanford because of the drive and the cost of gasoline.” He says it’s unlikely that any last-minute pitch from Sanford would have worked.
Even so, Bob Joyce wishes the city had put up a fight. He became president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce in late 2007. “I remember talking to a couple of people who had connections with them, and at that point we determined it was too late.”
Political and business leaders should have met with Sodini to argue the city’s case when news of the company’s plans broke, Joyce says. “Even if we hadn’t been able to change his mind, I would have felt better that we’d made the effort. We won’t make that mistake again.“ It’s unlikely they’ll ever have the opportunity — at least not with a business as big as The Pantry. Fortune 500 companies don’t sprout overnight, and Sanford doesn’t have an international airport, a large university and other amenities that might help it snatch corporate headquarters from other cities.
The Pantry didn’t leave the cupboard bare in Sanford. About 250 workers remain — mostly in information technology, accounts payable and maintenance. But moving top decision makers to Cary is a blow to Sanford’s collective pride, just as it was to North Wilkesboro’s when Lowe’s Cos. moved to the Charlotte suburb of Mooresville in 2003 and to Wilson’s when BB&T Corp. left for Winston-Salem in the mid-1990s. “That’s the problem North Wilkesboro’s got and we’ve got and Wilson’s got,” Joyce says. “You nurture these businesses, and then they get to a point where they need to attract the best and the brightest. And they need to move where they can do that.”