It’s still relatively novel to think of the South as a hub for technology and innovation, but Greenville, South Carolina, is working on changing that perception. In this Q&A, John Lummus, President and CEO of the Upstate SC Alliance, talks about the past, present and future of business in the Greenville metropolitan area.
How has the business climate in the Greenville area evolved over the years?
Lummus: Throughout most of the 20th century, Greenville was a textile area. That’s how we got our nickname, the Textile Capital of the World. But in the 1970s and 1980s, we lost quite a bit of work in that industry—around 125,000 jobs.1 Thankfully, our leadership had the foresight to see that coming, so they started a pretty active process of working to recruit some foreign industries and got introduced to the European business sector.
Tell me about some of the major international companies that have established operations in the Upstate.
Lummus: One of the first big companies to set up operations in South Carolina was Michelin; they opened their first plant here in 1975. Now they have about ten plants in South Carolina and about 8,800 employees.2 Michelin triggered a wave of European companies coming to Upstate South Carolina. BMW, for instance, opened a plant in Greer in 1994, and they currently employ about 8,000 people.3 We now have more than 500 foreign companies in the area.4 This continued investment in foreign companies, and in the manufacturing industry as a whole, has led to a great creation of wealth in the Upstate.
Who has been leading these advancements?
Lummus: The first big development was in the late 1970s when the mayor of Greenville at the time and a group of influential leaders got a federal grant that enabled them to build the Hyatt Regency on Main Street.5 That was the first big public effort to revitalize the upper part of downtown. And a few years after that, a group of private individuals put money together to build a performing arts center, which started reestablishing the central part of the city. So there’s been incredible cooperation between the public and the private sector that’s driving the city’s growth. We’ve been so fortunate to have developers that had the funds to make these changes, and the wherewithal to take a chance on developing this city.
Tell me about the dynamic between small business and large business in Greenville.
Lummus: We’re working hard on some entrepreneurship initiatives. The Greenville Chamber of Commerce has an incubator that’s been very successful, and that has about 20 companies right now. They have an especially good bioscience division. South Carolina hasn’t always been seen as a great area for entrepreneurship, but we are working to change that. We’re not just growing the mom-and-pop retail small businesses—because the theory is that those are naturally going to grow around such a large manufacturing base—but we’re growing smaller technology, innovation-driven companies.
Why do you think business leaders are drawn to Greenville?
Lummus: I think businesses see the potential for growth in the lower wage points, low utility costs, availability of the workforce and the fact that we’re a right-to-work state. Plus, it’s just a great city. In the 1970s, downtown Greenville was a ghost town. But now we’ve got a thriving, bustling downtown, the population of the metropolitan area has grown nearly 20 percent since 20006 and the economy is great. That development drives even more development.
What do you see happening for Greenville in the future?
Lummus: I think the biggest thing is tapping into that potential for entrepreneurship and start-ups, particularly in the bioscience and advanced materials industries. And we’re changing our focus to attract more foreign direct investments in those fields. These opportunities are integral to shaping our future as a hub for high-tech business.