During World War II, Robert Hurst, Sr., whose family owned a manufacturing company in New York since 1907, was serving on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga with a stocky man with a bullfrog voice from Bamberg named Franklin Rizer “Ziggy” Hartzog.
The two became fast friends for the next two decades. When Hartzog, who owned Ziggy’s Restaurant and Motel in Bamberg, mulled a run for the state senate, Hurst promised to move the company to South Carolina to boost his friend’s political credentials.
“Poppy would come down here to hunt and fish and Ziggy would visit New York to party,” Hurst’s grandson, Russell Hurst, said last week. “Ziggy wanted some Yankee business down here to help him run.”
Hartzog won the seat, but died in a car accident in 1966. The next year, Hurst moved the plant to Bamberg to fulfill his promise.
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This year, Phoenix Specialty Manufacturing is celebrating its 50th year in Bamberg and 110th year in business. The company specializes in manufacturing custom-made, precision small parts – mostly for the aerospace industry.
The fact the company, now run by Robert Hurst, Jr., has stayed in the family for 110 years is remarkable, S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said in a birthday celebration at the plant March 23.
“There must be some kind of secret sauce,” said Hitt, whose grandfather used to run the Bamberg newspaper.
In it’s early days, the company would stamp out washers and other small parts for buggies, boilers and railroads.
“They did a lot of brass washers for a lot of industrial uses,” company president Pat Maloney said. “They made a lot of basic round parts with a hole in it.”
The plant on Highway 301 makes 10,000 unique parts for 2,000 customers around the world, company officials say. Phoenix employs about 100 people and turns out 500,000 to 600,000 parts per day.
The company’s products – specialty washers, seals, shims, gaskets and spacers – are deceptively simple-looking, and some are tiny. But they are made to exacting, custom standards out of an array of high-tech materials.
Phoenix products can be found on the moon, on Mars, in Olympic bobsleds and NASCAR race cars. One woman even orders a specialtly washer as part of a magnetic scarf clasp.
The company’s biggest customer is General Electric. If you travel via commercial airlines, the jet engine more than likely has parts manufactured by Phoenix Specialty.
“The customers design the parts,” said Russell Hurst, the company’s vice present for sales. “They can be found on anything from a military jet to a White House Christmas ornament.”
The company is now a critical component in South Carolina’s burgeoning aerospace manufacturing cluster, which supports more than 100,000 jobs and has a national economic impact of $19 billion. Boeing, which has a huge airline manufacturing plant in North Charleston, uses Phoenix parts through suppliers, Moloney said.
In 1967, the original building was a 14,000-square-foot plant. Today, it has expanded to 120,000 square feet.
At the birthday celebration, Hurst, Jr., said he spent the summer of 1967 helping hire employees for the new plant. Once it opened, “We learned quickly that South Carolina is a very friendly place to do business.
“We prospered here because of the dedication and determination of our family, and because of the dedication and determination of our employees,” he said.
Hurst himself has become a key leader in South Carolina’s success in manufacturing. At the celebration, Hitt praised Hurst for the role he plays as head of the board of the S.C. Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which under Hurst’s leadership has become “the model for the country.”
Hitt said his former boss, Governor-turned-Ambassador Nikki Haley – who happens to be a Bamberg native – used to stress that, “Every job is a family.”
Last week, Russell Hurst, the fourth generation of Hursts in line to take the reins of the company, said the average employee has worked there for 16 years. The company strives to be a workplace that retains the skilled workers it needs.
“Manufacturing in South Carolina has a shortage of skilled workers,” Russell Hurst said. “So we have a clean workplace that’s air conditioned with very good benefits.” he said.
“We hire for attitude. We can train an employee as we go along. We need people who are looking for a career.”