Opinion Extra

Warner: Focus on strengths to grow new S.C. economy

Economic development in South Carolina usually means industrial recruiting. Candidates for governor in both parties say they will be the state's best salesman to convince outside companies to locate here. That's fine, but it was 20 years between BMW and Boeing. We can't afford to wait another two decades to hunt down the next buffalo.

A new economic strategy needs to grow South Carolina's economy in sectors where we are among the best in the world. We don't have to look outside the state to find opportunity. We have immense human potential at home waiting to be energized. If each S.C. worker earned income at the national average, $33 billion more personal income would flow through households across the state.

Thirty-three billion dollars. What would we be willing to do to recruit a company with that much annual economic impact? Why don't we work together to earn a $33 billion empowerment dividend for South Carolina?

We already are being successful. In December, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research graduated the first doctoral automotive engineer in the country, John Limroth of Austin, Texas. He went to work for the Michelin Americas Research Co. in Greenville, one of three Michelin research facilities globally.

A thousand people work at the Greenville facility. A few dozen have doctorates; 20 percent have a master's degree, and 40 percent have a bachelor's degree. Forty percent of the people who work in a corporate research and development facility are technically skilled. The Greenville facility keeps several Michelin manufacturing facilities in the state - where about 90 percent of the workforce has a technical degree - globally competitive. Michelin is supported by a community from materials and technology suppliers to professional services firms to educational institutions.

Think about that for a moment. We don't normally see ourselves that way. Not only did we develop the university program in South Carolina to train the first doctoral-level automotive engineer in the country, we retained him working in one of the automotive industry's preeminent research facilities - in the state. This builds on our long history of industrial recruitment success that got Michelin here. We're not abandoning manufacturing. The partnership between Clemson and Michelin is protecting and growing thousands of manufacturing jobs.

Let's celebrate that at the top of our lungs. CU-ICAR is training a new generation of Henry Fords so South Carolina can be at the epicenter of the transformation of the automotive industry. American Titanium Works and Proterra are coming to South Carolina because the center is making us smart, not because we are cheap.

Let's break down how this happened. Several years ago, Clemson President Jim Barker called a meeting and asked, "If Clemson was in Greenville, what would we do different?" George Fletcher continued the conversation with a group of Greenville leaders for about a year, before a concept crystallized that Chris Prizirembel took to Helmut Leube to ask BMW to partner with Clemson.

The result is the automotive research center, which is a talent magnet for South Carolina. Four endowed research chairs at the core of center attracted preeminent scholars, who attract top graduate students, who graduate and go to work in industry in the region. The most efficient way to transfer knowledge from a research university to industry is through people.

David Stafford, chief operating officer of Michelin's Greenville facility, will be one of seven senior leaders at the InnoVenture Southeast conference in May. He will describe what is strategically important for us to do to capture global opportunities Michelin is targeting. The key to earning the $33 billion empowerment dividend is energizing the communities around major anchors such as Michelin that collectively are the best in the world at serving global markets.

There are plenty more of these anchors around the state. Electrolux builds 2 million refrigerators and freezers each year in Anderson. In Spartanburg, Milliken has one the world's preeminent research facilities. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina in Columbia has six out of 90 of IBMs largest Z10 mainframes that exist in the world. The most hydrogen scientists in the world are in Aiken at the Savannah River National Lab. Boeing is growing in North Charleston. One of the world's most advanced pharmaceutical plants is Roach Carolina in Florence. This is far from an exhaustive list of where people in South Carolina are among the world's best.

In spite of the worst economic downturn in 60 years, there is enormous potential in South Carolina if we organize ourselves to discover opportunity and learn to succeed together.