On Friday, officials from a French-based, Chinese-owned company assembled in a building constructed by a German company in rural York County to toast the future.
Bluestar Silicones hopes its new research-development and manufacturing facility at the former Hella building in the East York Industrial Park will take the company to the top of its industry, making products that will be sold worldwide.
The celebration would not have been possible without the determination of a handful of South Carolinians, one the child of parents who immigrated from Punjab, India.
They were determined that a company rooted in a South Carolina town so small that’s it’s no longer on the map remained exactly that: South Carolina-born, South Carolina-bred and South Carolina-prosperous.
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It almost did not happen.
In February 2011, Bluestar Silicones officials announced they were consolidating operations in Rock Hill and Ventura, Calif., into the former Virkler chemical plant on Steele Creek Road in southwest Charlotte.
North Carolina and Charlotte officials rejoiced at the announcement. The two-decade trend of companies crossing the border to South Carolina for lower taxes and the perception of better schools had been broken.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue and N.C. Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco said Bluestar was coming because of the state’s top-ranked business climate, and “the creation of these high-paying jobs is terrific news for the Charlotte community and underscores the value of the region’s – and the state’s – highly skilled workforce.”
Bluestar officials said North Carolina’s incentives – about $1 million – were the deciding factor.
When asked what the loss meant, York County economic developer Mark Farris struggled for the right word. Finally, he said, “troubling.”
Looking over his negotiations with Bluestar, Farris asked himself, “Have we done everything we could do for them? They’ve been in this community for so long.”
For Bluestar employees such as Bob Barrett and Dave Beaty, the announcement was met with mixed emotions.
Barrett, Beaty and Dick Durkee had started PCL Inc., a chemical company, in Barrett’s Guthriesville garage in 1984. Guthriesville, between McConnells and York, once boasted a post office, a church and a railway express office. Now, Barrett said, only the old-timers remember Guthriesville.
Two years later, the trio pushed wheelbarrows of bat droppings to the building on White Street that once housed the Highland Mill’s company store and classrooms. In came materials and equipment to make silicones for the automotive, aviation, injection molding and sticky label businesses.
Over the years, the company was sold several times, becoming part of Bluestar Silicones when the Chinese company purchased Rhodia, a French company.
Finally, operations outgrew the former mill, and Bluestar officials looked for a new location. They could have gone anywhere, but decided that “Project Ambition,” code-named for a new building, would concentrate on sites within an hour of the Rock Hill site.
“It was a business decision,” Barrett said of the move on Friday. “I knew I would do whatever I could for Bluestar. Wherever that would be, I’d be there.” Barrett is Bluestar’s director of sales.
Beaty, Bluestar’s strategic development and compliance director, started looking over the former Virkler chemical plant building. Bluestar realized the building would take more remodeling than anticipated.
“A lot of us never gave up on York County,” Beaty said Friday. After visiting the Virkler building on Steele Creek Road in Mecklenburg County, Beaty approached Farris at a banquet and said simply, “We need to talk.”
Farris responded “absolutely,” promising, “we can do more.”
The dealmaker proved to be Gov. Nikki Haley.
Haley is not the first governor to make calls for economic development projects. But to talk to Bluestar officials, it’s clear that her charm warmed officials at the company’s North America headquarters in East Brunswick, N.J., and the international headquarters in Lyons, France.
“We want to emulate you,” J. Christopher York, Bluestar Silicones USA president, told Haley at Friday’s celebration. “She has a great smile; that’s what works.”
To keep Bluestar, Haley picked up the phone. First, she called York. Then she called Pascal Chalvon-Demersay, CEO for Bluestar Silicones International.
“I don’t lose well,” Haley said Friday. Bluestar was important, she said, because of its international focus. She said she wants more state-to-state economic development projects, but keeping Bluestar was crucial because of its worldwide status.
Haley told York she cared about her workers and that she wanted to get “her people” back to work. Like North Carolina, she touted a first-class workforce. Her workforce was trained in textiles and was a “competency underutilized.”
Haley was adamant she could deliver the people and the resources Bluestar needed, York said.
But what sealed the deal was not dollars, or incentives, or even people. What sealed the deal was Haley wanted the same thing Bluestar wanted: a commitment to making things happen in the future.
She gave York and Demersay her personal cell phone number. “I want them to call,” she said.
Her approach, York said, “was a breath of fresh air. That was all I needed. It was not about money but about creating an environment.”
So, a company that was almost out the door was back in South Carolina, investing about $20 million, bringing 17 workers from California and retaining South Carolina and North Carolina employees. About 80 people work at the new facility, which has everything the White Street location didn’t: lots of bright office space, large labs, big “clean” rooms to mix products and space to grow.
And Bluestar intends to grow. By 2015, it hopes to have at least 109 people working there. It hopes its labs create new products. In the silicone business, some of the products have sales life of five years or less.
On Friday, Bluestar officials stressed they were planting new roots in York County. York, Bluestar’s North America president, even joked it was fated to be – a man named York, coming to York, S.C, driving on York highway to the East York Industrial Park. How many more Yorks do you need?
As Demersay lifted a champagne glass for his toast, Bluestar’s neighbors across the street in a simple home were outside tending the hogs. The contrast seemed fitting. Part of Bluestar, born in a Guthriesville’s garage, was back where it belonged, in rural York County, South Carolina-born, South Carolina-bred, South Carolina-prosperous.