Sit down with Mark Farris, and you may be surprised to learn he has played a part in recruiting more than 21,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in investment to York County since 1987.
Listen to one of his stories told in a relaxed, Southern drawl about playing pick-up games of basketball, and you'll peg him as just another guy from the YMCA before you realize he has visited almost every European nation as well as Asia and South America to recruit industry to York County.
Despite his long list of highbrow accomplishments and fancy certifications, the York native will tell you his big-shot job as York County's economic development director plays a down-to-earth role for anyone who lives or works in York County.
"As I walk through factories, some that I helped recruit, and I see people I went to high school with working steady jobs supporting their families, that's rewarding," Farris said. "That's what makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning."
Farris, 47, is completing his 20th year with the county. He has overseen York County's transition from an agriculture- and textile-based economy to one that is directly tied to the diverse Charlotte market. As textile jobs have faded away, Farris and his staff have recruited companies such as Freightliner, Black & Decker, Ross, Hella Lighting, Wells Fargo and Citi Financial to employ York County's work force. Seven of York County's top 10 employers have been recruited under Farris' watch. He's also the longest-tenured economic developer at a single county in South Carolina.
'Baptism by fire'
Farris, a York Comprehensive High School graduate, launched his career when he was a graduate student at Clemson University in the mid-1980s. He landed a job working for the Anderson County economic development office. After a shake-up that forced half the staff out the door, Farris found himself handling many responsibilities usually reserved for someone with more experience.
"It was baptism by fire," he said. "One day I'm just a graduate student working in the office, and the next day I'm standing in the field with the vice president of real estate for Wal-Mart. There was no one else to do it, and I fell in love with the job."
When York County brought Farris home to lead its newly formed economic development board in the fall of 1987, he drew from his Anderson experience. The two counties were similar in size and population, but also in geography and proximity to larger metropolitan areas.
"It was good training," Farris said.
One of the first things Farris did when he arrived in York County was to refocus the county's view of neighboring Charlotte. Anderson County used its proximity to Greenville to attract industry. But in York County, Charlotte's emergence as a diverse Southern city had seemingly been ignored or even avoided.
Farris said he believed the best way to spur major economic growth would be to embrace neighboring Charlotte.
"When I first got here, they had purposefully avoided the state line," Farris said. "We were so hung up on that line that we weren't aware that as Charlotte's economy evolved, we were an integral part of that. ... At last we realized our destiny was intertwined with Charlotte's."
After closing a deal to bring American Eagle Wheel to York in his first days on the job, Farris began his tenure by helping new industrial parks in Rock Hill, Waterford and TechPark, get off the ground.
But the economic boom of the mid-1990's soon had Farris more than earning his paycheck.
From 1993 to 1999, York County recruited a plethora of companies, including AMP, Chicago Pneumatic and Northern Hydraulics. Farris stayed "incredibly busy" recruiting industry with York County's low land and labor costs compared to surrounding areas.
"Those were the salad days," he quipped.
When Weyerhaeuser brought its offices to York County in 1997, the county had "emerged" as a diverse economy and an attractive place to build a business, Farris said.
But the heyday of economic growth was not without controversy.
In 1997, Farris was pictured in a Wall Street Journal article with a headline that said, "Charlotte Has New Enemy In Recruiting: Neighbors." The article explained how York County and Farris had recruited $61.5 million in investment and 1,127 jobs away from the Charlotte area and into York County. The article stated the losses had forced Charlotte to develop more tax incentives to compete.
Farris, however, wasn't happy with the "enemy" moniker and shot back, telling The Herald in 1997, "A good deal of our success is due to what Charlotte has to offer, so we're selling Charlotte as much as York County. ... York County citizens don't pay me to ask questions about where companies come from. They pay me to bring jobs here."
Not all of Charlotte's industry was snatched by York County, either. Farris said one of his biggest disappointments of the past 20 years was failing to land a 1,200-job Microsoft office in the late 1990s. Instead, the software giant expanded its Charlotte operation.
"It's a double-edged sword," Farris said recently about York County's proximity to Charlotte. "While we have common interests and assets, we're tooth-and-nail competitors. When it comes to crunch time, we're judged on the jobs and industry recruited to our own area, not across state lines."
Farris 'closes the deal'
Buddy Motz, chairman of the York County Council, gives Farris high praise. He said York County's transition from textiles to a diverse economy can be partially attributed to its North Carolina neighbor, but also to the savvy of Farris and his staff.
"Businesses look at us initially because we're close to Charlotte. But when Mark steps in, he closes the deal," Motz said, noting Farris also has been responsible with tax dollars, not recommending too many breaks for the level of investment. "I don't think we'd have been as successful over the past 20 years without his expertise."
Bayles Mack, a Fort Mill attorney and the chairman of the economic development board when Farris was hired, said Farris' system of determining how much incentive to offer a new business is based on how much positive impact that industry brings to York County. He has been so successful in determining fair incentive packages, Mack said, that Farris' method now is the standard across the state.
"It has to be a positive impact before he seriously talks about it. Mark's always had York County's best at heart," Mack said. "Other areas have tried to steal him away, but we're very fortunate we've kept him around. He is absolutely the best economic developer in the Carolinas."
York County Economic Development Board member Paul Basha, CEO of York Electric Cooperative, lauded Farris' ability to build and sustain relationships with prospects, brokers and counterparts in other areas. He said Farris also has succeeded at geographic diversity. The co-op owns East York Industrial Park, and Basha said Farris has done a nice job of recruiting industry that fits different parts of the county.
"Not everything that fits along the interstate in Fort Mill will fit in York, and he understands that," Basha said.
Freightliner a 'benchmark'
The latest economic development in York County, a deal to bring truckmaking giant Freightliner to Lake Wylie, is Farris' greatest accomplishment so far, he said. He said the deal demonstrates York County is no longer a second-tier market, but a national-caliber player capable of sustaining offices for industry leaders.
Farris said he expects to gain momentum with the Freightliner announcement, using it to recruit other premier office developments with high-paying jobs. He'll also focus on more diversity by fostering a good environment for small businesses and recruiting more upscale amenities such as premium hotels and restaurants.
"The Freightliner deal was a benchmark for us," he said. "When I started, we used to just sit on the sidelines. Now, we're heavily involved from start to finish."
The Mark Farris file
Title: Director, York County Economic Development Board
Resume: Former economic developer for Anderson County, master's degree in city and regional planning from Clemson University, 1980 graduate of York Comprehensive High School
Family: Wife Erin; children, Cade, 12, Connor, 10, Colin, 8; and parents Nancy and the late Johnny Farris
Quote: "I love my job, and I've done some exciting things. But I have a beautiful wife that I love and three wonderful kids. So, the rest of it is just gravy."