Hitt spoke with News Editor Lindsay Chappell. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: How has your state changed during your career?
A: Thirty years ago, South Carolina was what I'd call a "3-T" state, and that was textiles, tobacco and tourism. Tourism is still very important. But textile and tobacco have been replaced by automotive and also aerospace.
In the past, before BMW came in, South Carolina wasn't getting any automotive business. We've come a remarkable distance since then. In the past 10 years, we've recruited $9.2 billion in auto sector investment and right at 23,000 jobs. South Carolina is the country's largest exporter of passenger cars. It is the largest exporter of tires. And not many people know this, but we are also now the leading U.S. producer of carbon fiber — not just for auto but also for aerospace.
What has driven auto growth in the state over the past decade?
Recruiting companies is a complicated activity. It's not about wining and dining people with single-malt scotches and steak dinners. What companies are looking for is reduced risk. They're looking for an environment where they have a friendly government — and that expression doesn't just mean "low taxes." We believe we are a reasonable tax state — I rarely have companies talk to us about taxes. We have higher property taxes, but our manufacturers know that that's how we fund our schools, and they don't have much objection to it.
These companies we work to recruit see South Carolina as a low-risk state with good resources that's highly flexible with business and offers a modern port. We're spending about $2 billion on the port and railway system in Charleston right now to better serve logistics. We have a very modern highway system, and we're raising our gas tax to improve it. We have a statewide logistics group made up of key industry players who meet and identify pinch points and make sure we're doing what we need to be doing to fix them.
How successful has the state been in attracting auto suppliers?
We spend a lot of time looking at our automakers' supply chains and trying to help their parts companies also come in. We have about 500 automotive companies in the state now. And just to give you an idea, BMW employs about 11,000 people on their campus now, but their supplier network here has closer to 30,000 people.
What has happened since the early years of BMW coming in has been a shift by their component suppliers to supply multiple customers. And that's a good thing, and everybody likes it, including the automakers. A diverse customer base is a good thing. Costs get spread, and efficiency is gained.