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Columbia Business Monthly

GADC says Greenville is positioned for success

By John C. Stevenson

While the Greenville Area Development Corp. celebrates two decades of successfully drawing a diverse mix of industries and businesses to the area – supporting over 64,780 jobs and creating a $6 billion economic impact annually in Greenville County, according to a recent study by USC’s Moore School of Business economists – local leaders say that, with continued planning, the region has the resources to drive economic growth for decades to come.

Chief among those resources, according to government and business leaders, is a labor pool that is both deep and offers a wide variety of skill sets.

Didi Caldwell, president and founding principal of Greenville-based Global Location Strategies, works with companies – primarily manufacturers – that are looking for site locations, so it’s her business to understand an area’s strengths and weaknesses.

“The number one thing that any company is looking for is a talent pool that they can draw from in order to make them successful,” Caldwell said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s manufacturing or a technology business or a corporate headquarters; whatever type of operation it is, you have to have good people that you can employ who can make you successful.”

The Upstate region, with its mild climate, rolling topography and easy access to both the mountains and the Atlantic, isn’t a hard sale.

“I think recruiting is a big plus for Greenville,” Caldwell said. “We’re always in the top 10 of [people] wanting to live here, wanting to relocate here. … I think it does help attract people to the area as well, to work for companies.”

But it’s not just about attracting new people. The Upstate also offers a home-grown labor pool suitable for a range of jobs from executive suite positions to work on the manufacturing floor. Mike McCormick, vice president and technical plant manager of Bosch Rexroth Corp.’s Greenville operations, called education a driver in creating a strong labor pool, and in particular praised Greenville Technical College.

“I’m very deeply engaged with Greenville Technical College,” McCormick said, “but I think, in general, the technical college system in South Carolina is an economic development engine, and we have to do everything we can to support and help drive students into those institutions.”

McCormick praised Greenville Tech for contributing to the area’s “talent pipeline,” saying “they can take thousands of people [from] retail or hospitality careers into manufacturing, into cybersecurity, into health care. So that talent pipeline is vital.”

While also praising technical schools, Marjorie Jenkins, who serves as dean of the School of Medicine - Greenville, UofSC associate provost, and chief academic officer of Prisma Health Upstate, noted the critical contributions of the area’s universities in creating a diverse workforce. She pointed to the Upstate’s growing biotechnology and life sciences industries as one example.

“When an area starts to attract biotech companies, it’s really a sign that companies believe that there is both the talent to recruit employees and also partnerships with some of the concerned entities,” she said. “So I think that really speaks very well to Greenville’s location and its health care system here and also its health care system’s partnerships with Clemson and Furman and the University of South Carolina.”

Jenkins noted that industries such as biotechnology require diverse workforces.

“When people think biotech companies,” she explained, “they might think about companies that are doing research or creating therapeutics, but biotech companies also involve medical devices and manufacturing, and so it’s really a broad swath of talent that needs to be recruited to support a biotech environment.”

In the decades since the GADC was created to lead economic development in Greenville County, the Greenville Chamber of Commerce has worked to complement the GADC’s efforts. Carlos Phillips, the chamber’s current president and CEO, praised the GADC’s work, noting that the agency helped diversify the area’s economy at the crucial moment that textiles were moving away.

“I think the GADC has been instrumental in diversifying our economy from our days as the textile capital of the world to an economy today that still has a strong textile presence, but includes advanced manufacturing, financial services industry, a strong hospitality industry, an emerging aerospace excellence, logistics prowess,” he said. “I mean we’re clicking on all cylinders right now here in Greenville, and the GADC’s certainly been key to that over the past 20 years.”

While the GADC has worked to build a diversified local economy, Phillips observed, the chamber continues to work to ensure the local workforce will be both diverse and thriving enough to support the growing industry base.

“The chamber, approximately a decade ago, adopted diversity and inclusion as a priority, not only for the chamber, but also for businesses and for the community as a whole,” he said. “For the past decade, we’ve been on our own diversity/equity/inclusion journey and trying to lead our community through this. We’ve launched a minority-business-accelerator program, and over the past eight years over 120 minority- and women-owned businesses have graduated from that year-long program designed to help businesses not only run more effectively, but to help grow their capacity so they are better-suited to partner with organizations and corporations throughout the area.”

Phillips said it’s important for organizations like the chamber, GADC, Upstate Alliance and others to keep working together to continue to deliver an attractive package to both businesses and people who want to relocate to the area.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort,” he said. “We all play a role, and it works best if we’re singing from the same hymnal more often than not. We’re often aligned on our goals; the path to achieving those goals is where the real engagement and dialogue takes place.”

Because the GADC works for the entire county, it provides a showcase not only to businesses interested in downtown Greenville, but to those with needs better served by the multiple smaller communities across Greenville County. As the second-largest municipality in the county, Greer is often a beneficiary of the GADC’s recruiting efforts. For the past quarter century, Greer has been home to BMW Group Plant - one of the Upstate’s largest employers. The city is also unusual in that it is split between Spartanburg and Greenville counties. In many ways, according to Greer Mayor Rick Danner, the smaller city’s offerings to prospective businesses complement the city of Greenville’s own offerings.

“I think it’s sort of the grand slam, so to speak,” Danner said. “For commercial and industrial, it’s location, location, location, and if you’re a tier 1 supplier to BMW, or you’re simply in the automotive space even for part of your product, you want to be around here if you can. And having access to the Inland Port Greer and to a growing [Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport], particularly on the freight side, you can’t pick a better location.”

Other smaller cities – including Fountain Inn, Mauldin, Simpsonville and Travelers Rest – that surround Greenville also provide unique benefits and attractions.

“Our intent is that we want Greer to remain a small town regardless of what its population is, but I think what really makes Greer unique is that number one, we’re not necessarily landlocked like some other municipalities. Our footprint is 27 square miles – almost as big as Greenville’s,” Danner said. “So we’ve got plenty of room for growth and development and that sort of thing.”

Greenville County Council Chairman Willis Meadows also noted the importance of the area’s infrastructure, including Inland Port Greer, to attracting a wide range of businesses and industry to the area.

“To me, as I look at the future, I see a bright future because of the foundation that’s already been laid over the years, through GADC, through the chamber,” Meadows explained. “I think our best strategy is to build on the foundation we already have.”

As an example, Meadows pointed to the Inland Port Greer.

“We’ve got a lot of different things that have helped us, such as the Inland Port,” he continued. “Most inland ports lose money. Our [Inland Port Greer] doesn’t lose money. It has been a real boost to getting products in and out of the state. As we look to the future, it’s going to be a very vital thing.”

Meadows also suggested that the GADC should work to bring more corporate headquarters to the Upstate, and further suggested that the time might be right to aggressively pursue companies that have made their homes on the West Coast.

The GADC “should be a little more aggressive on headquarters,” he said. “There’s a great deal of movement out of California [now]; Texas and Florida have been aggressive on those and I’d like to see us focus on some of those.”

According to Mark Farris, GADC president and CEO, the organization is eagerly anticipating the completion of its latest strategic plan, which will be used to help guide the GADC through the next several years.

“Greenville County is no longer just a manufacturing location,” Farris said, “so our objective is to use the strategic plan to certainly continue [to recruit] some sectors of manufacturing – automotive, aviation, advanced materials – that are critical to us, and also explore how we can add value in additional industry verticals and in areas like innovation, entrepreneurship. In 2018, we announced more office projects here than manufacturing. So we seek a diversification of industry types, and that’s important to use this plan to best position Greenville for those kinds of cases. And we believe that the emphasis we’ve placed the last several years in successfully adding inventory of new sites and speculative buildings will benefit the county for many years to come.”

Tom Epting, chairman of the GADC Board of Directors, said the strategic plan, which was commissioned under his predecessor, won’t be a “cookie cutter” report.

“We wanted to give our consultant [TIP Strategies] wide latitude to think outside of the box, to almost start with a clean sheet of paper,” Epting said. “We can get into a position where we see things from an angle that maybe an outsider might view differently or might view from a different angle. That was our purpose.”

The plan will be presented to the GADC before the end of the year.

“Obviously, we want to use the resources we already have here in the community – talent and existing industry. We want to grow things in a way that’s both attractive to newcomers but also makes it continue to be the attractive area to live in that we all know.”

As the GADC continues to work to draw more businesses to the Upstate, Bosch Rexroth’s McCormick noted the importance of understanding that, as Greenville has grown, so has the need to compete successfully on a larger stage.

“I think in many cases, economic development people believe that their competitor is the next state or the next county or maybe another region, but really everybody is competing globally now, and we have to recognize that at the end of the day what we do here could be done anywhere else in the world,” McCormick said. “The reason we keep it in Greenville is because we are competitive on a cost basis, plus we also bring many other advantages.”