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Anders Gustafsson, president and CEO of of Volvo Cars USA, greets employees during his visit to the new Volvo manufacturing plant in Berkeley County on Friday, April 6, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

By Grace Beahm Alford gbeahm@postandcourier.com

Volvo Cars executive Anders Gustafsson applies the same mantra to employees as he does to the Swedish automaker's cars.

"If you just test us out, you will stay with us," said Gustafsson, who has worked most of his adult life for Volvo, most recently as head of the company's U.S. operations in Rockleigh, N.J.

With brand loyalty near the top of the scale among luxury car buyers, Volvo is seeing a sales resurgence in the United States as it finishes construction of a $1.2 billion manufacturing campus in rural Berkeley County.

The first car to be built there — a redesigned S60 sedan — will debut in June during a special event at the plant, followed by a production kickoff later in the summer.

But first things first: Volvo needs hundreds of people in the next few months to get the plant up and running.

Roughly half of the 1,500 workers needed in the first wave of hiring are already on site, but the toughest jobs to fill — those in maintenance and on the production floor — are still largely vacant. By the time a second production line is introduced in 2021 to make XC90 SUVs, about 4,000 people will be employed at Volvo's only North American manufacturing site.

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Anders Gustafsson is president and CEO of of Volvo Cars USA. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"I understand that it's been tough because we have such a low unemployment rate in the area," Gustafsson said, referring to the Charleston region's 4.2 percent jobless number, the lowest in South Carolina.

"It's a little bit tougher than we had in our plans," he said. "But I think everyone is doing an excellent job here in attracting new talent." 

'A lot of jobs'

Volvo is competing for workers with the region's other advanced manufacturing firms, such as a new Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in North Charleston, which is looking to hire 1,300 people by 2020.

ReadySC, a worker training program that's part of the state's technical college system, is in charge of recruiting and training most new Volvo employees. Recent workshops for residents interested in jobs at the plant drew overflow crowds.

"We are going to put a lot of jobs in place here," said Katarina Fjording, the Volvo vice president in charge of getting the Berkeley County plant off the ground.

But only about 4 percent of the people who apply through ReadySC have the basic skills, education and aptitude needed to make it through the screening process. That includes scoring well on a standard assessment test, making a good impression during telephone and in-person interviews, completing a training program and passing a drug test and background check.

Gustafsson said he's confident the staffing will come together in time. And he hopes his company's high marks for employee satisfaction will instill as much loyalty in the workforce as Volvo's customers feel for the cars.

"The most important job is not hiring people, but developing them within our culture, because this is a great company," he said. "Employees are investments, and investments are things you have to take care of."

Just-in-time production

Construction of the Volvo campus, located on about 1,600 acres within the Camp Hall Commerce Park near Ridgeville, is on track for "everything to be full speed in September," Gustafsson said.

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Volvo S60 camouflaged

Volvo's redesigned S60 sedan was camouflaged when it was taken to Lofoten, Norway, for winter testing in February. The car, which will be made at Volvo's new $1.2 billion campus in Berkeley County, will make its debut in June during a ceremony at the facility. Provided/Volvo Cars

The site eventually will turn out 150,000 cars per year, with about half of them exported from the Port of Charleston to markets worldwide. The rest will be sold locally and at dealerships across the country. About half of those cars will move by train on a new rail line being built by state-owned Palmetto Railways.

The plant's supplier network is largely in place, with Volvo's just-in-time production schedule calling for parts to be delivered on the same day — or even within the same hour — that they are needed.

"Our suppliers know what they need to do," Gustafsson said, adding that he's not worried about hiccups in the supply chain as production begins.

The redesigned S60 will be introduced at a time when the U.S. sedan market is shrinking and demand is shifting toward SUVs and pickup trucks. A report by Reuters shows sedan sales made up 36.8 percent of the U.S. market last year — down sharply from 51.2 percent in 2012.

"It's not exactly the best time to be launching a new sedan," Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis at Edmunds, told Automotive News last month. Caldwell and other analysts wonder if there will be enough demand to fill the Berkeley County plant's capacity. After all, Volvo sold just 14,218 S60s in the U.S. last year and 52,927 in other countries.

High hopes for S60

Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo's CEO, has said the redesigned S60 will appeal to younger buyers who might not have considered a sedan before.

And Gustafsson said Volvo's brand as well as the company's commitment to safety and technological innovation will help the S60 break away from the pack.

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South Carolina Plant Expansion

Parking lots that were largely empty just a few months ago are starting to fill with employees' vehicles as Volvo Cars gets ready to begin production this summer at its $1.2 billion manufacturing campus in Berkeley County. Provided/Volvo Cars

As production begins, the S60 will be available on the automaker's growing Care by Volvo subscription network — a web-based lease system that offers a vehicle, insurance and all maintenance for a flat monthly fee. The concept has attracted more than 1,000 customers in just a few months, with 94 percent of those new to the Volvo brand.

Care by Volvo and its app-based leasing feature is also skewing to a much younger demographic than the 50-somethings that the automaker typically attracts.

"Forty-five percent of the customers are younger than 35," Gustafsson said. "That is a new thing for Volvo."

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Anders Gustafsson, president and CEO of of Volvo Cars USA, visits the new Volvo manufacturing plant Friday, April 6, 2018 in Ridgeville. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

It's been a busy eight months since Gustafsson took over U.S. operations after previously heading Volvo's business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He's overseen the start of Care by Volvo while, at the same time, assuring hundreds of U.S. dealerships that the program isn't going to put them out of business.

He has helped lead the automaker's transition from gasoline-powered engines to hybrid and electric cars. Last month, he accepted the World Car of the Year Trophy for the redesigned XC40 SUV at the New York International Auto Show.

He said visiting South Carolina is always refreshing, both because of the progress he sees at the Berkeley County plant and for the weather, which typically beats what he experiences in northeastern New Jersey.

"I'm very impressed every time I visit," Gustafsson said as he surveyed new landscaping between the main office and the final assembly site. "Today I noticed the new palm trees, so I would say it's close to being a finished plant."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_