For a company that makes paint for airplanes and automobiles, Mankiewicz Coatings couldn't have picked a much better place than Charleston for its only U.S. manufacturing facility.
As the home to Boeing Co.'s airplane assembly plant and vehicle makers Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans, the region is providing plenty of opportunity for growth in Mankiewicz's own backyard, even though the German firm's local site is responsible for providing products and services to the broader U.S. market.
"Our focus on the automotive, aerospace and general industry markets have positioned us for ongoing success," Michael Grau, the company's managing partner, said during an event last week to mark a $30 million expansion at the company's 10-acre Charleston Regional Business Center location off Clements Ferry Road.
The 90,000-square-foot campus — which opened a year ago — includes new production, logistics and warehouse space as well as administrative offices, a lab for research and development and a training center. And there's room for future expansion due to growth, something Mankiewicz didn't foresee at its previous location on nearby Jessen Lane.
"We thought we could stay in that building for the next 10 years, but literally after four years we had to start looking for something bigger," said Fabian Grimm, managing director of the Charleston site, which is four times larger than the old space. "We've experienced such fast growth since moving to Charleston — about 30 percent per year."
In addition to its products for planes and cars, Mankiewicz makes paints and coatings for boats, agricultural machinery and a wide range of industrial products — from office and medical equipment to laptop computers and coffee machines.
Based in Hamburg, the company's U.S. operations began in the Upstate in the late 1990s as a supplier to BMW, making paint for the German automaker's Z3 roadster. Mankiewicz moved it to Charleston in 2010 to be closer to the Port of Charleston, where the company imports much of its raw materials from Europe.
"The efficiency of the Charleston port was vital when choosing where to locate our business operations," Grau said.
As Boeing ramped up production of its 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston, Mankiewicz began supplying coatings for the planes' interior parts within the cabin. At the same time, the Charleston site expanded its customer base throughout the U.S. with big names like American Airlines, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
Grimm said he hopes the Charleston region's fast-growing manufacturing base, including several companies Mankiewicz does business with overseas, will add to the local customer list. For example, Mankiewicz already is a European supplier to Volvo, which is building a $1.1 billion manufacturing facility near Ridgeville, and provides coatings to propshaft maker IFA, which will open a production site in Berkeley County next year.
Despite its rapid growth, Mankiewicz remains a mid-sized firm in the U.S. paint and coatings industry, where companies like PPG Industries and Sherwin-Williams dominate market share. To Grimm, that means Mankiewicz — with roughly 70 employees locally and 1,300 globally — has to work harder to compete with the bigger names.
"We have to be a little better, provide more customer service, a faster response and more innovative products — that's our strategy," he said.
That was the thinking behind building four high-tech paint booths at the Charleston site — one of them large enough for a boat — so customers can try new Mankiewicz products first-hand to test such things as their resistance to ultraviolet degradation and how the coatings react to the manufacturer's original materials.
"We can figure out together if something needs to be adjusted," Grimm said. "We can also train our customers and help them to recognize failures and where those failures are coming from, because often it is not the paint."
Grimm started with Mankiewicz a decade ago as an apprentice in the Hamburg headquarters and moved to the U.S. two years ago to head the Charleston facility.
"I had worked in sales before and one day the owner came to me and said, 'Do you want to be managing director in the United States?'," Grimm said. "We have an owner who trusts his people very much. That's the spirit of this company. There's a family spirit that exists where everyone supports each other."
It's a quality Grau highlighted during his visit to the Charleston facility last week.
"The workforce here is the most important part of this investment," Grau said. "They are what allows all of this to happen."