Former managing editor of The Columbia Record and later The State, S. C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt took his journalist’s command of the language and respect for the truth into state government at the beginning of the Haley administration last January. Picking up where predecessor Joe Taylor left off, he has led many victories, and he has heard high praise, especially in the storm called The Great Recession.
Hitt was the lunch speaker at the Columbia Rotary Club in Seawell’s last Monday, October 3. He was introduced by Midlands economic developer James Morris. Hitt’s long-term relationships with state and local governments, Morris said, made for Hitt’s advantage in his job as head of Commerce. Hitt’s greatest advantage, though, was his moral compass and his habit of following its direction.
Morris mentioned Hitt’s 18 years handling the media at BMW near Spartanburg, where he left to take the job at Commerce. Before BMW, Hitt was the director for planning and development at the state’s largest law firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Hitt was a key player at Nelson Mullins when they helped to bring BMW into South Carolina, one of the state’s most impressive success stories in economic development. The plant produces around 1,000 vehicles a day, and about 70% of the total goes out on 900 trucks a day to more than 130 world markets.
In 2010, BMW exported more than $ 4 billion in automobiles, establishing itself as the largest vehicle exporter from the U. S. to non- NAFTA markets. The National Association of Foreign Trade Zones recently awarded BMW as its exporter of the year.
Now that’s the kind of thing Hitt is working to repeat.
While he’s at it, Hitt knows he must recruit companies to South Carolina that plan to create jobs for the long haul. And he enjoys bringing industry into where it can have the biggest impact. He cited an industrial addition to the town of Denmark, 50 jobs to start and another 50 soon enough, and the town of Denmark is forever economically transformed.
The businesses Hitt chases bring their own capital to make jobs, but Hitt says the state and local governments are usually expected to come forward with the infrastructure, like highways and such.
So far this year, Hitt’s first, South Carolina has gained 10,000 jobs, 7,000 of which are in manufacturing.
Most memories of the state’s recent gains in jobs are dominated by Bridgestone in Aiken County, 850 new jobs altogether. But Hitt ran off a sample list of companies and their jobs contribution to the state just since last May: Michelin expansion, 270 new jobs; Amy’s Kitchen, 700; Drexel Meyer, 150; Innovative Composites, 300; ZF Transmission, 900 plus another 300 to follow; Otis Elevator, 360; and so on. Do note that Hitt was citing manufacturers.
The importance of manufacturing cannot be underestimated, Hitt declared. The source of most of the wealth in the world, manufacturing makes for the ideal economic development target. What’s 10% of the state’s labor occupation and 16.5% of the state’s economy ( gross state product) make for a most desirable target. Since December 2010, South Carolina has been leading the Southeast in growth in manufacturing. From January 2010 to August 2011, 200 firms investing $5 billion have located in South Carolina.
South Carolina is good at making stuff, as Hitt put it, and the world knows it. Bridgestone could have located just about anywhere, but it chose Aiken County, South Carolina because the state is good at making stuff.
The future looks even brighter, especially with the expansion of the Port of Charleston while the expansion of the Panama Canal is under way, due for completion in 2014. The Port of Charleston, Hitt rang out with full authority, is South Carolina’s most significant single weapon in the war of industrial recruiting.
Meanwhile, wages in China have inflated by 17% in the past three years, and the value of the yuan, the Chinese currency, is bound to aim toward real value, not the artificially low value that leaves the world in unbalanced trade or unfair trade.
Hitt recommends South Carolina work for a statewide brand. He has seen a bit too much of regional tension, such as the Upstate badmouthing the Lowcountry while the Midlands downgrades both. Hitt wants all stakeholders on board, all representing the state. At the Paris Air Show this summer Hitt, saw three different teams from South Carolina chasing the same passenger jet assembly suppliers.
One great advantage in South Carolina is the small size, only 4.5 million people. If improvements in education are necessary, it’s not like an insurmountable problem of scale. There’s just 4.5 million people, a manageable number.
What Hitt also wants is more South Carolinians moving into the front office, having risen from the plant floor, building wealth for themselves while they boost the wealth of the state.
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