Taylor leaving a string of victories

S.C. Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor made his mark in business at Southland Log Homes in Irmo, which sold for millions in 2005.

COLUMBIA -- Joe E. Taylor Jr., a Columbia native and South Carolina's secretary of commerce, is a competitive guy.

"I don't like losing," he said from his corner office on the 16th floor of the Capitol Center, a stunning view of the State House over his right shoulder. "It's a fighter mentality. If we lose a deal, it keeps us up at night."

Taylor, who will leave office Jan. 11 with his controversial boss, Gov. Mark Sanford, must be sleeping pretty well lately.

Sanford appointed Taylor in 2006 and, since then, Taylor and his staff have compiled a string of wins that, insiders say, Taylor could parlay into a role as a political player in the future.

--The department has announced nine projects that promised 1,000 jobs or more each since 2006, six of them in the last 18 months. There were no 1,000-job announcements in the four years prior to 2006, during Sanford's first term.

--Last year, South Carolina had the best ratio among commerce department's in the Southeast for jobs announced, 39.5 per 10,000 residents with the region's average being 22.5, a report by the department shows.

--The agency's chief recruiter, Jack Ellenberg, was named 2009 Person of the Year by Southern Business Development magazine.

--A high school dropout prevention program he championed, Jobs for America's Graduates-South Carolina, has received national recognition.

--And there was that little Boeing thing down in North Charleston, an assembly plant for the company's 787 Dreamliner passenger jet that promises 3,800 jobs. It was the national Deal of the Year in 2010, according to Business Facilities magazine.

Taylor and his team have done their work in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression and on a budget that systematically was whacked by the General Assembly from $11.3 million in 2006 to $3.9 million this year, a 69 percent cut.

"Given these economic conditions, he's still announcing projects all the time. And that takes work," said Lewis Gossett, chief executive officer of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.

Gossett joked that the staff at Commerce has become his membership committee, helping to draw announcements of new facilities or expansions from high-profile international companies including Adidas and Boeing.

Taylor's Sanford-appointed predecessor at Commerce, Bob Faith of Charleston-based Greystar Partners, agreed Taylor has had success reeling in jobs during a dreadful economy.

"Joe has proven himself able to close the big deals and keep the little deals coming in, too," he said. "He's bright. He's focused. He's coming from a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps background. He has a lot of wisdom to deal with the problems of the day."

But Taylor's record has been overshadowed, some critics say, by his boss's clandestine affair and, particularly, the state's high unemployment rate.

Sanford ducked out of one of Taylor's South American dove hunts in 2008 to have a tryst with his Argentinian lover, leaving Taylor and staff members dealing with difficult questions about the trip.

"When Sanford went through his problems, a lot of people were telling Joe to resign and get out of this mess," said Bill Stern, chairman of the S.C. Ports Authority and a friend of Taylor's since elementary school. "But Joe is a loyal guy, and he didn't want to abandon his employees. It was hard to take the governor around and do business for the state after that. But they dug in harder. That impressed me, that he didn't call it quits."

As for the high unemployment, Stern said: "No one looks beneath those numbers. They look at the unemployment and just stop. But a lot of the things he has done are in development right now, and the impact will be felt in the next 12 to 24 months."

In a recent cabinet meeting, Sanford said Taylor has capitalized on the downsizing and consolidation of corporations during the recession, leveraging the state's low taxes, good transportation systems, its port and the almost complete absence of unions to sell South Carolina.

Taylor said the state is increasingly competing with the world. "And we're winning most of those fights."

But not all.

Caterpillar Inc., for instance, recently chose Winston-Salem, N.C., over Spartanburg County for a 510-worker plant to make heavy mining equipment parts. That's something that would keep Taylor up at night, because one of his motivating factors, he said, is a fear of failing, a fear engrained in him as a youth.

Taylor's father, Joe E. "Earl" Taylor, was "a classic entrepreneur," Joe Taylor said. He owned the Gatehouse restaurant on Bluff Road in the 1960s and 1970s, bought and operated the Wade Hampton Hotel and did real estate projects. When Joe Taylor was in kindergarten, he would go to work with his father at the restaurant.

By 14 years old, he was going with his father to get loans to do real estate deals.

But, in 1974, when Joe Taylor was in high school, a recession hit. "It crushed him," Taylor said of his father, who passed away two years ago. "That's not going to happen to me."

Fear of failure has inspired a work ethic that defined Taylor throughout his business career. He helped his father start Southland Log Homes in Irmo while he was a student at Wofford College. At age 25, he became chief executive officer and president, eventually growing the company into the largest producer of pre-cut log homes in the country. Taylor sold the company for millions in 2005.

The Manufacturing Alliance's Gossett, who was head of the Department of Labor under former Gov. David Beasley, described Taylor as a "bulldog," a worker in the mold of former Secretary of Commerce Bob Royall.

"He works 27 hours a day," Gossett said of Taylor. "Commerce has been underfunded, but Joe hasn't complained. He has just taken his budget and made it work."

Although he doesn't call it a regret, Taylor said he wishes he could have landed a big Boeing- or BMW-type score for the Midlands.

"It would be great to hit a grand slam at home," he said. "But we've hit a lot of doubles and triples," noting shipping giant DHL and truck manufacturer Navistar made announcements promising 700 new jobs and saving 200 more in Lexington and Richland counties.

As for life after Commerce: Is Taylor going to run for elected office?

"Never say never, but I don't have any plans at this time," he said.

Taylor said he is going to work to the Jan. 11 finish line, "then get some rest."

"I felt like it was my turn and my duty to give back to the state that has given so much to me," he said. But, after long days and some sleepless nights, "I think we're about even now."