Early pre-production of the new X7 in Spartanburg. The BMW plant opened in 1994. Photo credit: BMW
South Carolina’s rise as an auto industry corridor has been a phenomenon. Far from the industry’s traditional Great Lakes center, more than 400 automotive companies now operate in the state, including three European automakers — BMW, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz Vans.
But much of the what has happened in South Carolina is due to a single development: the opening of BMW’s assembly plant in Spartanburg in 1994.
Twenty-five years later, BMW is still spawning auto industry investment in towns around the state.
JTEKT North America Corp. said in May it will invest $19.4 million to expand its Koyo Bearings plant in Walhalla, S.C., about an hour away from JTEKT North America’s headquarters in Greenville. The plant produces bearings, thrust races and steering ball bearings. It will add 18,000 square feet onto the 173,000- square-foot plant and create 56 jobs as part of the expansion.
JTEKT North America operates 14 plants and established its headquarters in South Carolina three years ago at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, an industry technology center and think tank that BMW helped create in 2006.
Magna is already expanding a plant it completed just last year. Photo credit: MAGNA
Early this year, the Spanish auto interior supplier Grupo Antolin said it will invest $50 million to build three BMW manufacturing sitesnear Spartanburg. A Grupo Antolin spokesman said the plants also will supply General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Honda Co.
Magna International completed a $29 million plant in Spartanburg last year to produce seats for the BMW X5, X6 and, later this year, X7. Then in March, Magna said it will spend $8 million to expand the plant.
Over the past 18 months, suppliers have begun new plants or expansion projects totaling $200 million in investment in South Carolina to supply BMW.
“The past 25 years have been pretty fascinating, and I think BMW has played a greater role in it than people realize,” said Bobby Hitt, South Carolina secretary of commerce.
Before being named to the government post seven years ago, Hitt was manager of corporate affairs for BMW. He had a front-row seat to BMW’s own growth as a U.S. manufacturer.
Opened at a relatively modest cost of $600 million as a small assembly point for North American-market 3-series cars, Spartanburg has expanded into the largest BMW assembly plant in the world, a multiproduct plant representing an $8 billion investment.
Hitt: BMW has played big role
It continues to expand output. It is currently hiring and training 1,000 additional workers to support production of the new X7 crossover.
That growth continues to spark additional supplier development, said Amy Tinsley, executive director of the South Carolina Automotive Council. The council, part of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, helps connect the state’s auto industry players.
She said BMW’s impact on the state’s auto industry cannot be overstated.
“Their success is felt throughout the supply chain,” she said.
Last year, German auto supplier Bo Parts GmbH built its first U.S. plant near Greenville to supply low-volume and service parts to BMW. The supplier, part of Frimo Group GmbH, invested about $5 million in the site, a spokeswoman said. Frimo Group CEO Hans-Günter Bayer said in statement that the new 60,000-square-foot operations will support the company’s global growth in low-volume production and service parts.
Last year, Gestamp Group invested $129 million to expand its Union County, S.C., plant, an hour’s drive from BMW. The site supplies BMW as well as Volvo. Volvo itself was attracted to South Carolina in 2015, in no small part because of BMW’s existing supply chain there. Volvo officials said that the two automakers had many suppliers in common.
Japanese wiper blade rubber supplier Fukoko America Inc. also last year said it would invest $13.9 million to expand its only U.S. manufacturing plant in Laurens County, just 40 minutes south of Spartanburg.
MM Technics, a subsidiary of German company Muhr Metalltechnik GmbH & Co. KG, that supplies stamped metal structural parts for BMW, last year spent $12.6 million to build its first U.S. plant near Columbia, S.C.