Haley, Volvo celebrate debut in S.C. Governor vows state will ‘overdeliver’ on promises that lured $500M plant

Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars North America, said the company looked at 60 U.S. locations before picking the Charleston region for its first U.S. production plant.

Having made the official announcement nearly three weeks ago, Volvo Cars’ executive Lex Kerssemakers and Gov. Nikki Haley used an event Thursday at Charles Towne Landing to give a few shout-outs to those who worked behind the scenes to lure the luxury automaker to Berkeley County.

“Things like this don’t happen without a lot of people,” Haley said, thanking many of the guests at the Swedish car company’s coming-out party, where about 100 invited attendees sipped iced tea, dined on shrimp appetizers and snapped photos of politicians and business leaders as Kerssemakers welcomed them to the stage one-by-one.

Volvo on Thursday cemented its plans to build a $500 million manufacturing facility near Ridgeville, with Haley and Kerssemakers, the CEO of Volvo Cars North America, and other officials signing a “memorandum of understanding” that spells out the promises both sides made in bringing the company’s first U.S. plant to the Charleston region.

Haley vowed that South Carolina will “overdeliver” on its obligations.

“We are a state that keeps its promises,” she said. “A lot of promises were made.”

The factory, which will begin construction at the Camp Hall Industrial Campus during the fourth quarter of this year, will produce its first cars in 2018 and could employ as many as 4,000 workers. Kerssemakers said 7,500 people already have inquired about getting a job at the plant, even though the first workers won’t be hired until late 2017.

The U.S. factory is part of Volvo’s plan to jump-start North American sales, which fell to 56,366 vehicles in 2014.

Volvo wants to build 100,000 cars each year at the Berkeley County site, hopefully fueling America’s appetite for the brand with a five-year rollout of 14 new models.

“It’s one of the most ambitious development plans in the automotive industry,” Kerssemakers said, adding that Volvo is “innovation driven — the cars we will build will be safer and cleaner, including environmentally friendly plug-in hybrids.”

The environment will play a key role in the Berkeley County plant, said Lars Wrebo, the company’s senior vice president of purchasing and manufacturing.

While construction will require filling nearly 195 acres of wetlands at the Camp Hall site, Volvo has agreed to preserve, restore and enhance 1,533 acres of nearby wetlands. The company also plans to power its production plant with renewable energy and will establish an on-site stormwater system with ponds that simulate wildlife habitats.

The state also has agreed to build an interchange to the Volvo plant off Interstate 26 and make improvements to the highway to minimize traffic congestion, Wrebo said.

Kerssemakers said Volvo’s sales decline — last year’s total was less than half those of a decade earlier — was somewhat by design, with a production pullback in the wake of the recession. Critics, however, say Volvo’s designs have failed to keep up with the competition, and the company’s top selling point — safety — is no longer a factor because of gains made industrywide.

“Without question, this is a huge risk for Volvo in that they are investing half a billion dollars into a company and this is going to be their launch of made-in-America cars,” Haley said. “They want to be a well-known brand in South Carolina and in the country, and we want to help them do it.”

Kerssemakers said there still is a market for safety innovations — the company’s Vision 2020 plan, for example, states no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by the start of the next decade.

“The guiding principal behind everything we do is safety,” he said.

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But Volvo officials also realize they cannot be a world player without a prominent presence in the United States.

“We have truly positioned Volvo Cars as a global automotive manufacturer,” Wrebo said. “Our American plant plays a most important role in that global footprint.”

Kerssemakers said the company looked at more than 60 potential locations across the country.

“Some we left quickly. Some remained toward the end,” he said. “Here in Charleston and in South Carolina, we have found our manufacturing home.”

For Haley, Volvo’s decision was the culmination of months of work by what she terms “Team South Carolina.”

It’s a team with a long roster: the Commerce Department; electric utility Santee Cooper; Berkeley County; the State Ports Authority; the ReadySC worker training program; Department of Natural Resources; Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism; and Department of Employment and Workforce.

All of them got their attaboys from Haley, capped by her signature slogan: “It is a great day in South Carolina. We could not be more excited.”

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