MCDERMOTT COLUMN: Manufacturing bet pays dividends
Fetten is president and CEO of Cooper River Partners LLC, the latest owner of one of the region’s oldest industrial subdivisions: Bushy Park.
He’s also is a die-hard believer in U.S. manufacturing and the good-paying, skilled jobs it creates.
He and his investment group demonstrated as much in 2009, when they ponied up $10 million to buy the remaining 400 acres of undeveloped high land at Bushy Park near Goose Creek.
It was quite a contrarian gambit at the time. Or opportunistic.
In any case, Cooper River Part-ners was writing a big check when industries of all stripes were still reeling from the global financial meltdown.
Fetten justified the investment with a bold, if slightly premature, prediction.
“I believe we’ll see a resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S., and we can play a role in that by minimizing a new company’s investment when they come here,” he told The Post and Courier shortly after the Bushy Park purchase.
After a few white-knuckle years, the nation’s manufacturing machine is indeed starting to rattle and hum again. The Boeing 787 plant in North Charleston is far and away the most prominent local example.
Another is the deal Fetten’s group nailed down with Nexans. The global cable manufacturer plans to invest $85 million and build a 200-worker plant in what is now called Charleston International Manufacturing Center. It expects to be making high-voltage electricity and telecommunication lines in 2014.
Fetten stands by his 2009 forecast.
“Manufacturing is coming back to the U.S. … We’re heading into an industrial renaissance,” the Daniel Island resident said last week from Germany. “I absolutely believe that.”
The Nexans deal could turn out to be more than meets the eye if Fetten’s instincts are right. In one sense, it already is.
The company’s 300,000-square-foot factory plans call for a 400-foot-tall cable-stringing tower that required an air-clearance permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. The soaring structure will be visible from the Ravenel Bridge on a clear day.
“How often do you see that?” Fetten asked.
Beyond the physical dimensions, he sees tie-ins between the Nexans plant and existing industry. For instance, the maritime business could see a boost from the cargo vessels that will cruise up and down the Cooper River picking up cable shipments from the company’s wharf.
A less certain but seemingly natural connection is with Clemson University’s wind-turbine testing center being built on the old Navy base in North Charleston. Fetten pointed out that the local Nexans factory eventually plans to make submergible cables that link offshore power generators with the mainland grid.
“It basically feeds right into what Clemson is working on seven miles down the river,” he said. “It’s really nice to see this come together.”
The Nexans deal wasn’t a slam dunk. Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia all sought to win the investment and jobs. The local work force, government incentives and the site itself eventually put South Carolina ahead of the pack.
It’s fitting that French-owned Nexans ended up at Bushy Park, home to numerous global manufacturers over the years.
The Berkeley County property was on the leading edge of smokestack chasing in South Carolina when it was conceived as a huge hard-core business campus in the 1940s. Originally measuring more than 4,000 acres, it was promoted to big manufacturers that needed access to abundant fresh water.
South Carolina Electric & Gas acquired Bushy Park in the mid-1960s and later built its Williams Generating Station on the tract. Parcels were later sold off in bits and pieces.
Previous tenants have included Bayer and General Dynamics. Current occupants include DuPont and Jacobs Engineering. Another is Lanxess Corp., which sold the last of the undeveloped land to Cooper River Partners.
Fetten has said his group was smitten by the rail and water access, not to mention the steam, nitrogen and other industrial utilities that were already in place.
It all goes into the pitch Fetten has been making in Germany, Europe’s strongest economy and one of South Carolina’s largest overseas trading partner.
“I had a good meeting with a prospect yesterday and have another one Monday,” he said Thursday. “Hopefully, we can talk about them soon as well.”