For Gov. Nikki Haley, something as simple as the way someone answers the telephone can make a difference in recruiting industry.
“As silly as it sounds, we had all of our public servants in South Carolina start answering the phones with ‘It’s a great day in South Carolina, how may I help you?,’ ” Haley said this week before a federal panel of business leaders looking to improve foreign trade.
“They hated that so much,” Haley said of state employees’ reaction to the mandate. “But the whole point was that we wanted them to enjoy where they work and to remind them who it was they work for.”
Haley acknowledges the telephone greeting is a minor thing. But it’s indicative of a culture change Haley says she brought to state government.
“We call it ‘Team South Carolina,’ ” Haley told President Obama’s Export Council during a meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. “When one area succeeds, everybody celebrates. When another area is going through a challenge, everybody helps.”
Haley was invited to speak to the panel about recruiting foreign investment in aerospace and advanced manufacturing industries as well as improving relationships with foreign companies that are already doing business in the state. She was joined by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Fresno, Calif., Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
The export council is headed by Jim McNerney, chairman and CEO of Boeing Co., which builds its Dreamliner commercial planes in North Charleston.
Haley told the panel that last decade’s economic crisis forced the state to change the way it does business with business leaders.
“We came off the 2008 recession and we said, ‘How are we going to fix things?,’ ” Haley said. “What we knew was that, number one, we had to take care of the businesses we already had — look at what their vision was for growing and look at where they wanted to go.
“And, secondly, we had to get into the customer service business,” she said. “That means agencies need to understand that time is money and if you are costing a person or a business time, you are costing them money — and that’s no longer acceptable in South Carolina.”
That means moving things along quickly — “Costs can happen when a piece of paper sits on a desk,” Haley said — and viewing things from a business, not bureaucratic, perspective.
“We’ve got to look at it from what it’s like to be on the other side of the table,” Haley said.
Haley, Nixon and Swearengin gave the panel their take on what foreign industries are looking for when they invest in the U.S. Nixon, for example, said it’s important to start teaching children early about the benefits of foreign trade.
“I talk about exports when I go to kindergarten classes because, quite frankly, those kids in kindergarten and first grade are competing with kids in Beijing and London, not just with kids in the next county,” Nixon said.
Swearengin focused on the need to have infrastructure up and ready when foreign businesses come calling. And she called on utilities to provide rate breaks to major manufacturers.
Haley touted the Boeing campus, as well as BMW’s automotive manufacturing plant in Greer and the state’s five major tire manufacturers. She bragged about landing a new Mercedes Benz Sprinter van plant, to be built in North Charleston, and a Volvo Cars factory to be built in Berkeley County — a pair of announcements that bring a combined $1 billion in investments and up to 5,360 new jobs. She told the panel that Toray Industries, the world’s largest carbon-fiber maker and a supplier to Boeing, now calls South Carolina home.
“All of those companies come for the basic things — they want a good workforce and they want to be sure it’s going to be business friendly,” Haley said. “But for states and D.C. to really help these businesses, we’ve got to understand the customer service side. We need to understand that product to market matters.”
Infrastructure is a key, Haley said, pointing to the Port of Charleston and the state’s inland port in Greer as examples of how South Carolina can move products quickly. The Port of Charleston now exports nearly $30 billion worth of goods each year, leading the nation in exports of cars and tires. The inland port provides a rail distribution hub that is within 500 miles of 100 million U.S. consumers.
South Carolina promotes its participation in a Small Business Administration program called STEP, which makes grants to small businesses looking to export their products and services. Another program called SCOPE — South Carolina Opportunities for Promoting Exports — helps businesses that have 500 or fewer employees and have been open for at least two years ship their goods overseas.
“A lot of companies want to export, they just don’t know how,” Haley told the panel, adding that the state helps businesses partner with international buyers and participate in international trade shows.
“At the end of the day, this is all about cash flow,” Haley said. “If companies have cash flow, they expand and they hire more people. And in South Carolina, that’s very much what the progress has been. Exports are a big part of that and we’re going to continue growing that as much as we can.”
Finally, Haley echoed Nixon’s call to promote manufacturing careers to high school students.
Guidance counselors need to tell students “that you don’t have to have a four-year college education, I just need you to go to technical school for 18 months to be able to build a car or build a tire or build a plane,” Haley said.
Haley said an apprenticeship program that is run through the state’s technical college system and pairs high schoolers with manufacturing jobs has been particularly popular among foreign firms.
“International companies in particular want apprenticeships,” she said. “They are used to it. They respond well to it and kids need to see how cool it is to work in these companies.”
Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren