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Not long after its arrival in Berkeley County, Thorne Research found a surprising challenge in its efforts to hire the nearly 300 employees it needed. Provided

A supplement maker from Idaho was ushered to Berkeley County in 2016 with a call from Gov. Nikki Haley, an incentive package and a mile-high ride around Charleston in a helicopter.

But not long after its arrival, Thorne Research found a surprising challenge in its efforts to hire the more than 200 employees it needed at the time.

Chief Operating Officer Tom McKenna said it was the biggest problem that came along with uprooting the business and moving it east to South Carolina. Now, about a year after settling in, the company wants to hire even more as it shifts to a new strategy and aims to grow. 

Thorne, founded in 1984, was nestled along a river not even 100 miles from the Canadian border for about two decades. 

The city of Dover's biggest draws were the surroundings, the Sandpoint Reader reported, which didn't turn out to be as much of an incentive as the $35 million package South Carolina ultimately offered. Qualified workers were in short supply in Idaho at the time, too, the Reader noted, and the relatively remote mountain setting made it difficult at times to conduct business. 

Thorne leadership personally visited about two dozen cities searching for a new location. 

Mike Graney, vice president of global business development for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, was in the thick of efforts to recruit Thorne to the Lowcountry. 

Thorne stuck out as a good get, because it was part of an attractive industry, and because it was looking to move its whole shop, including the headquarters, out of Idaho. 

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Thorne Research Chief Operating Officer Tom McKenna led Gov. Henry McMaster and Berkeley County Economic Development Director Barry Jurs on a 2017 tour of the company's new South Carolina headquarters. File/Warren L. Wise/Staff

Phoenix, Orlando, Charlotte and Austin were in the running. All were bigger. South Carolina didn't offer the most competitive incentive package of the five, Graney said.

Thorne's chief executives visited Charleston in the spring of 2016. Graney recalls treating the guests to a helicopter tour of Charleston, and dinner in the Long Room at McCrady's Tavern downtown. Haley was there, and offered up her personal phone number, Graney said — something she did often to win the confidence of business leaders.

Thorne announced it chose a 26-acre plot in Omni Industrial Campus in Berkeley County about six months later, in late 2016.

"It was the first time we'd gone head-to-head with major league markets in a national competition, and won," Graney said. 

In years past, Graney doubts Charleston would have even been in competition with the big Southern markets. McKenna said when the company announced its move "there was absolutely no contest": South Carolina was the clear winner.

About 40 percent of Thorne's employees opted to move their employer nearly 2,000 feet closer to sea level, trading an alpine environment for a marshy one.

Opening day came more than a year ago, on June 25. There was no furniture in the building, just one bottling line that wasn't hooked up yet. It was a "stark" environment, McKenna recalls.

Filling the space's personnel needs ended up being more challenging than predicted. About 110 relocated from Idaho. They needed to hire roughly another 300.

"We thought the workforce would be ripe," McKenna said.

Competition with big employers like Boeing, Volvo and others turned out to be fiercer than expected.

Volvo Cars announced its South Carolina investment in 2015, eventually beginning production at its new offices in rural Berkeley County last year. It plans to employ about 4,000 workers by 2021.

Before it unveiled its new manufacturing site, however, Volvo acknowledged it had a hiring problem. Only about 4 percent of applicants had the credentials needed to make it through the screening process, The Post and Courier reported.

Thorne has a little less name recognition than Volvo and Boeing, which chose North Charleston for its 787 Dreamliner plant a decade ago.

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Ultimately, Thorne was able to hire the people it needed. But some have left, and it wants to hire more. So the problem of a too-small life sciences workforce continues to be top of mind.

"The good news is that the economy is growing gangbusters here," McKenna said. "In order to keep fueling the beast we’re going to have to find a way to bring in new talent, and keep new talent in the state."

Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a food provider, Thorne isn't quite like pharmaceutical companies. It doesn't claim that its products treat any disease. But Thorne has been conducting clinical trials lately, like a drug company would be required to. The trials win the trust of doctors, who might then recommend Thorne's supplements to their patients. 

McKenna said half the company's customers are now medical doctors.

Thorne has also begun offering home kits that test customers for what nutrients they might be lacking. Then Thorne recommends some of its supplements to make the customer healthier.

Even slicker, the company has invested in technology that can tell customers over time whether the supplements are working.

SCBIO, an organization that promotes the life sciences industry in the state, says there are 500 companies in the niche field in the state today. Its top issue is bringing a greater workforce into the area.

The group, which McKenna is involved with as a board member, supports more advanced degrees in the field and better education for children in the public school system.

Erin Ford, its executive vice president, said a worker's choice of a certain employer can come down to perks and a culture difference. In general, companies are having to think strategically about how to attract employees to South Carolina and keep them here, especially since life sciences talent can earn a competitive salary anywhere.

"The industry as a whole is having to think about that," she said.

Today, Thorne has 366 employees, and it plans to continue adding more through the end of this year.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.