Commerce Secretary Harry Lightsey says SC ‘well positioned’ to take advantage of new opportunitiesNov 10, 2021 09:23AM ● By David Dykes
Harry M. Lightsey III was nominated by Gov. Henry McMaster and confirmed by the S.C. Senate as South Carolina’s secretary of commerce in June.
In nominating Lightsey, McMaster said, “Harry Lightsey has been a fixture in South Carolina’s business community for decades, and I’m confident that with the vast experience he will be bringing to the Department of Commerce, South Carolina will keep winning.
“Our state will have the workforce, infrastructure, intellectual capital, environmental assets and the quality of life necessary to compete – both nationally and globally – for jobs and investment.”
Lightsey knows he has some very big shoes to fill.
The governor’s nomination followed Secretary Bobby Hitt’s decision to retire after more than 10 years of service to the state of South Carolina.
Originally appointed by former Gov. Nikki Haley in her first year as governor, Hitt's years at Commerce were marked by tremendous success in recruiting businesses from around the world to invest in the state.
During Hitt’s time as commerce secretary, South Carolina announced 1,141 projects, 129,373 new jobs, and over $35.8 billion in capital investment, including three new automotive manufacturers – Volvo Cars, Mercedes Benz-Vans, and Arrival.
Additionally, manufacturing employment grew 16.7 percent, from 209,491 in January 2011 to 244,476 in December 2020. Additionally, South Carolina remains the largest exporter of passenger vehicles, tires, and ball bearings.
In a recent interview, Lightsey said South Carolina is in “incredibly good shape.”
Looking ahead, the next five to 10 years will be “really transformational,” he said.
“Businesses will change dramatically in terms of their business model – how they do business and the way they do business,” Lightsey said. “The nature of work will change. This is all universal, but it will definitely have an impact in South Carolina as well.
“Our citizens and our workers and our students are going to need to change their skillsets to adapt to the new technologies.”
As automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies play an increasingly important role in the workplace, they pose new challenges, he said.
But with change comes opportunity, he said. “And I think that our state is very well positioned to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Lightsey said the state has inherent natural advantages “frankly, that other states would love to have.”
Those include, he said, a terrific coastline, a deep-water port in Charleston, “a great interstate highway system that goes both north and south and east and west,” and the state’s location midway up the Eastern Seaboard.
In addition, he feels South Carolina’s smaller size is a distinct advantage: “We can react a little bit more nimbly and quickly. We all know each other and work well with each other.
“South Carolina has proven that it can be globally competitive through these global enterprises that have located here. Our citizens have shown that they can be competitive with anybody else anywhere in the world.”
South Carolina is known internationally as a state that makes good on its commitments, Lightsey said.
In addition to a trained, skilled workforce, he feels it’s vital to maintain and improve South Carolina’s infrastructure and broadband connectivity in rural areas.
McMaster, joined by the South Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority, Municipal Association of South Carolina, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, and members of the General Assembly, last month proposed a major rural infrastructure plan that would provide $500 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds to revitalize South Carolina’s water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.
Lightsey, in the meantime, is aware Hitt’s tenure wasn’t without controversy.
The Post and Courier in Charleston reported in June 2020 that some state lawmakers called on Hitt to resign after an audit suggested his agency failed to properly oversee millions of dollars in grants and tax incentives used to lure businesses and jobs to South Carolina.
The Legislative Audit Council report found that the Commerce Department used an outdated cost-benefit model to estimate the economic and fiscal impacts of a proposed project.
The model was adopted 25 years ago in the mid-1990s and could lead to the department approving project incentives that would have fewer estimated benefits to costs if the analyses were conducted using current data, the report said.
Further, it said the model relied on job-creation numbers provided by a prospective company with little documentation required to support the numbers and no research conducted by the department to determine the feasibility of the numbers.
The report also said applications for grants and job-development credits weren’t open to the public, and commerce officials only provided applications to companies for which the commerce secretary would recommend approval of incentives.
At the time, Brian Symmes, the governor’s spokesperson, emphasized the number of jobs Hitt had announced as commerce secretary since 2011 and painted the legislative audit as politically motivated, according to the Post and Courier.
Lightsey is undaunted.
“The incentives are a use of public money for the public good,” he said. “The first rule of thumb is that the public is entitled to know how its money is being used.”
But when you’re competing against other states to locate a facility, or worried about economic development prospects knowing specifics of deals cut with other companies, “those create serious competitive problems and the ability for us to really negotiate the best deal for the taxpayer of South Carolina,” Lightsey said.
“Those are the countervailing issues. I will say that we’re looking hard at transparency.”
Commerce officials are making changes in the wake of the Legislative Audit Council report, and “we’re going to continue to look at that and see what we can do to improve that to give the public better insight into how the incentives are being used and what they’re being used for without compromising our competitive interests,” Lightsey said.
He plans to hire a legislative liaison for the department to increase the level of communication and understanding among members of the General Assembly.
A fixture in South Carolina’s business community for decades, Lightsey has been in top executive leadership roles for major corporations in South Carolina and across the nation.
Notably, he served as the president of BellSouth Telecommunications for South Carolina prior to the company’s merger with AT&T, afterward becoming president for AT&T’s Southeast region.
Following his 26 years in the telecommunications industry, Lightsey joined the General Motors Corporation where he directed the legacy automaker’s federal government affairs operation, as well as the emerging technologies, OnStar and infotainment divisions.
Lightsey most recently was a principal with Hawksbill Advisors – a subsidiary of Hawksbill Group. He has also been a member of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Va.
Lightsey, a Columbia native, is a 1978 graduate of Princeton University, and a 1981 graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law.
He was the keynote speaker in Columbia in October when the SC 50 Fastest Growing Companies were honored at a ceremony at Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
The competition recognized achievements of top-performing private and publicly owned companies headquartered in South Carolina that have contributed to the state’s economy through exceptional increases in revenues and employment.
More than 200 representatives of businesses around the state attended the event.
In the interview, Lightsey said the state’s recent history “is one of incredible growth and taking advantage of the global economy.”
“I wouldn’t even begin to look backwards and try to say, well, we did this or we didn’t do that. Our emphasis needs to be to look forward.”
We have a couple of new hires to announce.
Kevin Dietrich has joined us as an associate editor in Columbia. He’s a former investigative reporter for the South Carolina Policy Council, speechwriter for former Gov. Mark Sanford, communications coordinator for Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough and business writer for The State newspaper.
He’ll enhance our Midlands reporting and work with Donna Isbell Walker, our associate editor in Greenville, to bring you the most relevant and insightful business reporting across the state.
In addition, we’re adding Zach McJunkin as our digital coordinator. He’s an Anderson University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. Outside of work, he enjoys Clemson football, live music, and supporting local restaurants around the Upstate.
David Dykes is editor of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly, and Charleston Business Magazine.