Midlands losing 440 jobs

An automotive supplier in Richland County will begin consolidating work in Virginia during the coming year and take 440 Midlands jobs with it.

Continental, which has its North American headquarters in Michigan, evaluated its manufacturing facilities because of the struggling automotive industry, said Stefan Demmerle, Blythewood plant manager.

After analyzing its plants in Blythewood and Newport News, the company decided to consolidate in Virginia, he said.

“At the end of the day, we have two plants that are not fully utilized in their capacity,” he said.

The German-owned Continental employs 360 people at its Blythewood plant, where it manufactures diesel fuel injectors for trucks, and it employs 80 at an engineering facility in Columbia. Both locations will close during the next 12 to 18 months, said Kathryn Blackwell, a company spokeswoman.

Continental considered a number of factors, including manufacturing capacity, operating costs and state incentives, Blackwell said.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine announced Monday that he approved $3 million from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund to keep Continental in his state.

S.C. officials would not release the amount offered to Continental, said Kara Borie, a state Department of Commerce spokeswoman.

“We pursued it as aggressively as possible,” she said. “Unfortunately for South Carolina, we believe no amount of incentives would have prevented Continental from leaving.”

The two states’ offers were comparable, Blackwell said.

“Frankly, the Virginia incentives helped make the decision,” she said.

More importantly, the Newport News plant was bigger and busier than Blythewood’s site.

Twenty customers were ordering parts from Newport News, Blackwell said. The Blythewood plant had two customers, Demmerle said. BMW, which has its only U.S. auto-making plant in Greer, was not one, he said.

While Continental employees in Blythewood will continue working into 2010, company officials acknowledged it was tough to deliver such grim news during the holiday season.

Employees were aware that production was down and the company was studying options for consolidation, Demmerle said.

“We had this project going on, and we informed our employees a few weeks ago that a decision would be made this weekend,” he said. “We deemed it absolutely necessary to talk to our employees.”

Demmerle and other officials met Monday with workers at the beginning of the two shifts.

“I can only say that I was proud of how our employees responded in the past few weeks,” he said. “I was proud that they kept a very professional attitude. We had no downturn in proficiency or quality. It’s a very difficult decision, not only for our employees, but for Continental.”

Some employees will be offered jobs at Newport News, and others will be able to apply for openings at other plants. Continental also will help with job placement, Blackwell said.

Continental opened its 221,750-square-foot Blythewood plant in 2000. The average hourly wage is $18, Blackwell said.

The Newport News facility has 366,000 square feet and employs 576 workers, who make gasoline fuel components for customers in North America, Europe and Asia.

The auto conglomerate still is moving its Continental Tire North American headquarters to Lancaster County, Blackwell said. Employees are expected to move in April.

In 2000, South Carolina gave Continental $3.5 million to pave roads and extend water and sewer lines to the Blythewood building, Borie said. It also received a $500,000 state grant in 2004 to test its diesel engines.

On top of those incentives, the company received an annual cash rebate on its employee tax withholdings, a standard offering for businesses locating in South Carolina. Continental began receiving the tax credit after it reached a $110 million capital investment and hired 434 workers.

Borie did not know the total of those rebates over the years.

David King, marketing director for the Central SC Alliance, said he recruited Continental in the mid-1990s during a trip to Munich, Germany.

“It was a major coup to win that project,” King said. “Now, we’re seeing the other end of that emotion. We’re deeply disappointed and saddened by the news. We’re going to have an empty building out there and people who got very bad news during the holiday season.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.