It was a blustery March day as the all-terrain vehicle made its way across what had once been farmland. Tall trees hid the land from Interstate 77, S.C. 9 and Old Richburg Road. Hidden, too, were deer, turkeys and other wildlife.
When the ATV approached a pond, the gentleman passenger asked the driver to stop so he could look at the swimming geese.
As the ATV idled, the other passengers, two women, talked.
“Will the people of Chester embrace us?” Mrs. Liem asked.
“Will your people embrace us?” responded Karlisa Parker.
Mrs. Liem nodded. Parker teared up.
Parker’s emotions were more than personal – Chester County had finally landed the big one.
Giti Tire – with 1,700 jobs, and the possibility of more, and a $560 million investment that likely would attract more tire-related businesses, as well as new retail and residential development – would be coming to Chester County.
Much more work needed to be done, but at that moment – and later at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, when Mrs. Liem, the matriarch of the family that owns Giti Tire, kissed Parker on both cheeks – Parker knew Chester County would never be the same.
A new day
Chester County’s new day began Monday, when Giti Tire’s Enki Tan, Gov. Nikki Haley and Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey – flanked by large video screens and a dais that included more company, state and local officials, as well as Singapore’s ambassador to the United States – unveiled the company’s name and elephant logo. Soon after, workers removed the covers from Giti tires ringing the porch of the Gateway Conference Center in Richburg.
The names on the tires could have been different. They could have been Hankook or Yokohama brands – tire companies that almost came to Chester, but went to Tennessee and Mississippi instead.
Years earlier, the names could have been Mercedes-Benz or Nissan.
The recruitment of Giti Tire is as much a story of success as it is the sum of Chester County’s failures.
Roddey jokes about the failures, saying the county has been the bridesmaid for so long, it could have filled a landfill with bouquets. But with each failure, lessons were learned.
In quick succession over the past several years, Hankook, Yokohama and Toray Industries considered Chester County and its 1,100-acre “mega site” between S.C. 9 and Old Richburg Road.
Anxiety began to rise as opportunity after opportunity slipped away from the county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state:
• Hankook, a South Korean company, wanted to build an $800 million plant that would employ up to 1,800. It went to Clarksville, Tenn., just west of Nashville.
• Yokohama, a Japanese company, wanted to build a $500 million plant that would employ up to 2,000. It went to West Point, Miss.
• Toray Industries, also a Japanese company, was willing to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years and employ 500 to make plastic resins and carbon fiber composite materials. It went to Spartanburg.
Those decisions “were devastating,” Parker said.
Yokohama officials took the unusual step of returning to Chester County to explain their decision. They said they liked Chester County, but chose West Point because of its proximity to Nashville. Company officials liked country music.
They told Chester County officials they were doing the right things.
The only thing Parker decided to change the next time was to listen more and not get caught up in the emotions of the deal.
Before making a deal, companies will look for all the reasons not to come. Typically, company officials won’t ask those questions directly, but their conversations offer clues. Parker was determined to listen for the clues and have the answers.
Haley said Giti Tire’s initial interest in Chester County came after she spoke at a Wal-Mart conference in August 2013. Giti supplies Wal-Mart with passenger and light truck tires.
When Giti Tire officials approached the state Department of Commerce, officials there were confident but cautious. South Carolina was one of eight states in the running. In all, Giti would look at 25 sites.
Commerce officials were confident because of South Carolina’s experience with Michelin, Bridgestone and Continental tire companies. The state was already the top tire producer in the United States.
Recruiting the fourth tire company was “harder,” Haley said. While the state could – and did – sell its experience, she said, recruiting Giti was different.
South Carolina was dealing with a company based in Singapore, 10,000 miles from the state, and, in terms of time, 12 hours ahead. If it’s noon in Chester, it’s midnight in Singapore.
Chester County officials knew that even a one-hour time difference could cause problems. When recruiting Nissan, there was concern how to coordinate a Chester plant with the company’s engine plant in Tennessee, said Mike Enoch, general manager of the Chester County Natural Gas Authority and past chairman of the Chester Development Association.
In addition to time and distance, Giti also was building its first plant outside Asia.
“Giti was nervous,” Haley said. “We had to hold their hands from start to finish.”
In recruiting Giti, South Carolina had to consider its existing tire plants, Haley said. Whatever site the state offered, it couldn’t compete with the workforce of Michelin, Bridgestone or Continental. Commerce officials also let those companies know of their intentions to recruit Giti, she said.
The deals made to get those tire companies to come to South Carolina were the template for the Giti deal, Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said.
The state put up a $35 million grant to help Continental build a $500 million, 1,700-job plant in Sumter. It made a $15.5 million grant to help Bridgestone with projects that represent a $1.1 billion investment and 702 jobs.
The state awarded Chester County a $37.8 million grant to help lure Giti Tire.
“There’s no cash up front,” Parker said, and grant funds will be paid out to Giti over time for eligible site improvements.
All three tire companies also qualified for job development tax credits. Those credits return part of new employees’ withholding taxes to the companies, which can be used to offset the cost of buying land, equipment or training people.
State officials have declined to estimate a value of the credits, because they are based on variables in the future. The credits can last up to 10 years.
Back in March, Mrs. Liem asked for the ride around Chester County.
“She wanted to see the people, see what’s there,” Haley said. Mrs. Liem’s interest impressed Haley. Still, “we were holding our breath.”
More meetings followed. Each time Giti officials visited, Parker made sure to give them a helicopter ride over the “mega site.” The aerial view reinforced the site’s prime asset – its location near I-77, , near the Charlotte airport, accessible by rail and easy access to the port of Charleston.
During one of those tours, the helicopter landed at York Technical College’s Chester campus for a meeting on what the college could offer Giti.
Roddey remembers a dinner meeting with the Liems.
He drove his pick-up to Charlotte, where the Liems greeted him. Roddey got out of the truck and began to walk with the help of a cane because of back problems.
“They knew I was hurting,” he said, “but were impressed I came by myself.”
Such personal touches offered by Roddey and Haley impressed the Liems, Parker said.
Roddey said he was just doing what he has always done, offering his homespun analysis of everything Chester County.
“I never pushed it,” he said. “I just talked about the people of Chester.”
The personal comfort level was what Giti officials sought.
When the company picked its final three sites, all could have worked, said Julianto Djajadi, executive vice president of business operations for Giti Tires USA.
“It came down to the intangibles,” he said. “Do we feel right about coming there. We’re going to be there for a long time. Do we feel ‘the fit?’ ”
Giti felt the fit.
Chester County felt the fit, too.
“It’s like working a puzzle,” Roddey said. “There’s one piece you need to find, and we found it. Giti was the piece we needed.
“This is as good as I could ask for.”