Sweet Carolina - Global Trade Magazine
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  March 1st, 2013 | Written by

Sweet Carolina

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South Carolina Opens Doors to the Worldwide Marketplace

Export opportunities suddenly and unexpectedly opened for Columbia, South Carolina-based Bridge to Life, distributor of its own line of preservation solutions for organ transplants, when a competitor had to recall its similar solutions.

“The market opened and we were one of the companies that tried to fill that gap,” says Aaron Gilchrist, global director of sales at Bridge to Life. “We went from being a predominantly domestic company with some international sales to going global nearly overnight. We had to move quickly but we continue to fair well due to a great deal of hard work and a lot of help, too.”

That included help from the U.S. and South Carolina Departments of Commerce in a number of ways, including obtaining international marketing assistance, receiving recommendations for translating labels, packaging and documents into local languages, and even “introducing us to individuals with the know-how of navigating the regulatory landscape in several countries in Europe and beyond.”

Aaron Gilchrist Bridge to Life’s global director of sales in front of the South Carolina State House.
Aaron Gilchrist Bridge to Life’s global director of sales in front of the South Carolina State House.

As the company continues to grow, selling more of its solutions, opening a London sales office, increasing its South Carolina staff and seeking out opportunities in new markets, the resources made available through these types of programs become increasingly vital, he explains.

“There are areas around the globe where there are a number of different barriers to entry, including language, regulatory oversight, shipping routes, currency risk and many others,” he says. “But we have a global network of trade help right here at our fingertips in South Carolina, and it can assist greatly with improving the ability to access far-reaching markets.”

South Carolina has a long history of international trade going back centuries, points out attorney David Dubberly, a partner with the Nexsen Pruet law firm in its Columbia, South Carolina office and a member of the South Carolina District Export Council.

“We are number one in the United States on per capita foreign investment, so we have a lot of international companies and international business people here and we rub shoulders every day, which I think helps South Carolina companies understand that there’s nothing strange about getting on a plane and networking globally and doing business globally,” he explains.

“The fact we have a lot of big banks that offer a lot of international services and have offices internationally also helps, as does the home-grown law firms that are becoming more adept at international issues.

“And we have a great support structure,” Dubberly continues. “The U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Commercial Service office has an office here in South Carolina. We’ve got real good people at the South Carolina Department of Commerce who help companies find international business partners and that set up trade missions.”

The State Commerce Department has helped everyone from auto company BMW—which manufactures its internationally distributed X3, X5 and X6 cars only in South Carolina—down to manufacturers of specialty food items, from Blue Buffalo dog food to Mother Shucker’s Cocktail Sauce to a boutique beer, some of these through the South Carolina Specialty Foods Association. The state’s exports go to some 200 countries.

The South Carolina Commerce Department offers seminars, conferences, market research, site location services and international trade missions with overseas sales meetings. And it recently implemented the STEP (State Trade and Export Promotion) grant program, which helps small- and medium-size businesses enter new global markets with financial assistance for export-related activities. Launched and funded by the U.S. Small Business Association—the South Carolina Commerce Department received a $279,128 grant in 2012—the program is managed by each state.

The department also works with the state’s 16 technical colleges to train workers at no cost to the employers. Under the college system’s readySC program, workers are recruited, screened and trained, with training guidelines and curriculum designed to fit a company’s needs.

“Companies get potential employees that have necessary skills and then can go on to jobs with the company,” explains Fred Monk, president of the Columbia, South Carolina-based nonprofit export assistance group ECI/Find New Markets, part of the South Carolina International Trade Coalition. “It’s underwritten by the state. The companies provide the course material and the state, through the technical colleges, trains them.”

Also operated through the state’s technical college system is Apprenticeship Carolina, with companies receiving a $1,000 tax credit for each registered apprentice employed at least seven months of every year.

Small business owners and entrepreneurs can receive personal guidance and assistance through the Clemson [University] Regional Small Business Development Center and other Small Business Development Centers throughout the state, including one-on-one management and technical assistance, marketing analysis, business plan preparation and financial feasibility studies.

Port of Charleston A registered Foreign Trade Zone, the Port of Charleston was a key factor in BMW choosing South Carolina for its manufacturing site. The port now handles the export of 17,000 BMWs per month.
Port of Charleston A registered Foreign Trade Zone, the Port of Charleston was a key factor in BMW choosing South Carolina for its manufacturing site. The port now handles the export of 17,000 BMWs per month.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce sponsors seminars featuring the heads of various state agencies so company officials, especially with small- and medium-sized businesses, can learn where to go for assistance with their needs and problems, says Otis Rawl, the chamber’s CEO.

“We have a manufacturing summit each year where we make manufacturers aware of what’s available to them, particularly in regard to workforce education and how they can get their workforce updated and upgraded for the jobs that are here,” he says.

The state offers job-tax credits, job-development credits and low-interest bonds. “We also have what we call a closing account,” Rawl says, “which is dollars that are set aside for the Department of Commerce and can be used for infrastructure to get a facility into a particular location.”

The state also has foreign offices in Germany, Japan and China that companies can take advantage of for help with targeting export markets. Its three main Foreign Trade Zones—one of them at the Port of Charleston and each with a subzone—can be used to escape U.S. Customs duties and some taxes on goods both imported and scheduled for export.

Port of Charleston authorities are developing an inland port some 200 miles away in the northwestern portion of the state near Greer, where BMW and numerous other manufacturers have production facilities.

“The largest concentration of the port’s customer base resides in that Greenville-Spartanburg County area,” says Allison Skipper, a port manager. “So there are hundreds of companies in that vicinity that could utilize the inland port to cut down on their [truck] transportation costs and at the same time alleviate some of the truck traffic we experience on our interstate highways. We have partnered with Norfolk Southern, which has existing rail tracks that run through Greer on its way from Atlanta to Charleston.”

Three major interstates converge near Greer, she points out, with one reaching down to the Charleston port. The inland port, which is scheduled to be fully operation by September, also will have space for companies to store inbound and outbound containers, Skipper notes. And because rail is less expensive and more environmentally friendly than truck, the inland port, she says, could spur some companies to begin to export or expand existing export programs.

The port, with a deeper harbor than its competitors in states to the north and south, is also building a new 288-acre container facility on the site of the former Charleston Navy base intended to boost the port’s container capacity by almost 50 percent, Skipper says. And the port already has set aside 100 percent of the funds needed to deepen its waters to accommodate the huge vessels that will use the expanded Panama Canal come early 2015.

With BMW exporting 70 percent of its autos—some 211,000 cars in 2012—South Carolina ranks first among all states as an auto exporter. With three of the top four tire makers—Bridgestone/Firestone, Continental and Michelin—located within its borders, the state also ranks first as a tire exporter.

BMW’s Spartanburg plant, opened in 1993, was the company’s first production facility outside Germany. According to company officials, the primary drivers of BMW choosing South Carolina were the Port of Charleston, which now handles the export of some 17,000 BMWs every month, and its statewide technical college system, which continues to provide the automaker with trained, skilled employees. When BMW chose South Carolina over Nebraska, its major competitor, Governor E. Benjamin Nelson complained that his state lost because he “couldn’t move the Atlantic Ocean.”

BMW’s strategic decision to make autos “for the world” rather than just the U.S., says Monk of ECI/Find New Markets, led to the company’s decision to be “strategically located” in South Carolina. “Otherwise they would be in Omaha,” he comments.

Such export-oriented development, he says, has led to the state’s “growth as a manufacturing location and accounts for why it’s so competitive in attracting both domestic and foreign investment.”

Bridgestone/Firestone Tire opened its first U.S. manufacturing plant in South Carolina in 1989. In September 2011, the facility was expanded to enable the production of off-road radial tires, which previously had been made only in Japan. Although the Charleston port currently is used only for the import of raw materials, the export of finished tires are expected to occur in the near future, according to a Bridgestone spokeswoman.

“We chose South Carolina,” she says, “for the technical level of the work force, the certified site, the available infrastructure and the incentives.” Through the state’s commerce department.

Bridgestone received $15.5 million in grants for infrastructure, site preparation and improvements to adjacent public roads. “The state, county and local governments have helped us at every turn,” the spokeswoman adds. “I can’t think of a better business environment.”

Bridgestone, like BMW, also continues to benefit from worker training at the state’s technical colleges.

“I think what we’ve done in South Carolina over the past 20 or 30 years—really over the last five years—to make South Carolina uniquely situated, is what we’ve done in the Port of Charleston, getting it dredged to 52 feet at high tide and getting three additional berths,” says chamber CEO Rawl.

“So I think you’re going to see a lot more companies that export and want to have a United States base located within 300 or 400 miles of the Port of Charleston simply because it will be the port of choice for the mid-Atlantic states. “So I think even better days are ahead of us,” Rawl concludes