BMW steers record $9.8B in autos to port Upstate plant is top U.S. exporter, big partner with Charleston’s port

BMW vehicles await export at the Columbus Street Terminal on Charleston's peninsula. The German automaker's Upstate plant exports about 70 percent of the more than 400,000 cars it produces each year. File

The BMW Manufacturing plant in Greer exported a record $9.8 billion worth of automobiles through the Port of Charleston in 2015, leading the nation in vehicle exports by value, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The German automaker set a record for production at the Upstate factory, building 400,904 vehicles last year. Of that total, more than 280,000 were exported abroad.

“Once again, BMW is proud to claim the top vehicle exporter spot,” Manfred Erlacher, president and CEO of BMW Manufacturing, said in a statement. “In addition to being the largest U.S. automotive exporter, our South Carolina plant has also become the largest facility in BMW’s global production network. These achievements are significant and clearly reinforce BMW’s ongoing commitment to the U.S.”

The 2015 export total represents an increase over the previous year’s figure of $9.2 billion.

Bobby Hitt, the state’s commerce secretary and a former BMW executive, said the announcement “reinforces the success a company can have when choosing to locate or expand here in South Carolina.”

Vehicle exports through the Port of Charleston, primarily BMWs, have more than doubled since fiscal 2010 and the booming auto industry is seen as a hedge against declining cargo numbers.

Jim Newsome, CEO of the State Ports Authority, said the maritime agency “has a strong partnership with BMW, and their operations are a tremendous asset to our port.”

Hitt, who was with BMW’s Greer plant from 1993 to 2011, told Charleston-area business leaders last week that the automaker “is like the gift that keeps on giving.”

“When I started there we had a handful of people and made 28,000 cars (a year),” Hitt said during a business forum at Trident Technical College. “We thought we were really something. They make 28,000 cars a month there now.”

BMW was the first vehicle maker to locate a manufacturing plant in South Carolina, in 1994, and will be joined in 2018 by a pair of Charleston-area facilities — Swedish automaker Volvo’s first U.S. manufacturing site in Berkeley County and a Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in North Charleston.

“No state in the country has the constellation of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo,” Hitt said.

“One of my favorite statistics is that in the last six years, 10 automotive plants have been announced in North America — eight of them are in Mexico; two of them are in South Carolina.”

The Volvo and Mercedes-Benz plants are expected to add more than 100,000 additional vehicle exports per year for the Port of Charleston.

BMW currently produces more than 1,400 vehicles per day in Greer and the plant is the exclusive exporter of X-model vehicles — X3, X4, X5 and X6 — to more than 140 global markets.

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