Tony Deering remembers steel from South Africa being flown to the U.S. for use in armored vehicles.
A co-founder of Pegasus Steel, he decided to fly to the U.S. to see if he could find a site to fabricate the heavy metal sheets and save the enormous transportation costs.
Deering settled on Goose Creek in 2007, starting with 12 employees. Today, the company has more than 200 workers and provides all the major steel components for mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, built at General Dynamics' Force Protection plant in Ladson.
General Dynamics announced in April that it will lay off 75 percent of its workers by year's end after losing a contract to build more of the hulking Buffalo mine-resistant vehicles to another U.S. company that plans to build them in Africa. Reduced military spending as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down also affected the Virginia-based company's decision.
On Friday, against a backdrop of a highly sophisticated, armored vehicle used by the military to save lives, Deering formally announced plans to expand Pegasus' workforce to the Force Protection plant by this fall to continue building the Cougar, an MRAP already produced at the U.S. Highway 78 factory. He hopes to employ many of the already-trained workers there to build the armored vehicle.
"Our goal is to get as many folks at General Dynamics' Force Protection plant engaged as soon as possible (working on the MRAPs)," he said. "We will be building the vehicles and selling them to General Dynamics."
Chris Brown, vice president at the Force Protection plant, said General Dynamics recently picked up four contracts to supply peacekeeping vehicles and Cougar modernizations and is aggressively pursuing other work, including a bid to refit MRAPs that the Marines plan to bring back from Afghanistan. A decision on the work will be made at the end of June.
"We hope to be actively involved in their refitting," Deering said.
Because of terrorist activity on the rise in Africa, the need for MRAPs continues in several countries there, he said.
Without the additional contracts, Brown said, there would not have been a need to find a partner. And he said General Dynamics still must capture other bids. "We still have to win work," he said.
Brown called the agreement with Pegasus a "win-win" for the Lowcountry.
"The arrangement with Pegasus gives us diversification in the defense and commercial sectors," Brown said. "Market conditions will allow us to continue Cougar operations in South Carolina ... with seamless production."
General Dynamics started last fall looking around South Carolina for a partner with the right skill sets. It found one in Pegasus, just three miles away, after "putting them through a rigorous process," Brown said.
Deering has not decided how many employees the site will have and he declined to provide a dollar investment for the project, but he said plans could include expanding the 104,000-square-foot, heavy steel-plate fabrication plant in Goose Creek.
"Negotiations are taking place, and we will assess what our needs are toward the end of the year," Deering said.
While General Dynamics will no longer make armored vehicles at the Force Protection site by December, it will keep about 50 or so workers on site to provide spare parts and supplies and offer field service support to domestic and international customers.
Pegasus and General Dynamics will share the leased facility.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.