Volvo: S.C. plant proof carmaker here to stay

A 2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country was on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

Lex Kerssemakers had a message Friday for Volvo’s skeptics: Don’t count us out.

“There were stories in the press that Volvo would disappear out of the United States,” Kerssemakers said, referring to the Swedish automaker’s loss in recent years of American market share to luxury competitors like BMW and Mercedes.

As Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony in Berkeley County drew to a close, signaling the impending start of construction on Volvo’s $500 million factory, Kerssemakers almost took on the tone of survivor.

“We can prove now that we will stay,” the CEO of Volvo Cars North America said. “We have been 60 years in the United States. We know we are going to stay another 60 years.”

The announcement in May that Volvo will build its Berkeley County campus and start making 100,000 cars a year already has given new life to the Volvo brand, Kerssemakers said.

“We could not have expected that so many customers and so many retailers would start a level of engagement which really helps us doing business in the United States,” he said. “We see incredible re-engaged dealers. We see customers who are proud that Volvo starts a factory in the United States.”

The result, he said, has been double-digit growth in U.S. sales in the months since the announcement. Year-to-date totals are lower — a 4.3 percent sales increase through August. Volvo is hoping to double its U.S. sales after the new plant opens.

The Berkeley County facility, located off I-26 near Ridgeville in the Camp Hall Industrial Campus, will be home to the world’s only production line of a next-generation S60 sedan. The car, one of 14 new products Volvo will build through 2020, will be sold in the U.S. and shipped overseas through the Port of Charleston for worldwide distribution.

The S60 is described as a sporty compact sedan. Volvo has sold it since 2000 and unveiled a second-generation version in 2010, but the model that will be made in South Carolina will be completely redesigned.

“The sedan market is big, and the Volvo S60 is a very popular car in the United States,” Kerssemakers said, explaining why that car was chosen as the American factory’s debut vehicle.

Kerssemakers said he doesn’t know what other models the plant will build, “because, honestly, we have our hands full to get that car (S60) out.”

Volvo also announced that Katarina Fjording will oversee the plant’s construction and operations. Fjording previously held a similar position in China, where Volvo has three facilities and where its parent company, Geely Holdings, is based.

“There is an expression, may you live in interesting times,” Fjording said. “I cannot think of a more interesting time in Volvo’s history. We made it happen in Europe, we made it happen in Asia and we’re going to make it happen here.”

Volvo envisions its U.S. plant, which eventually could employ as many as 4,000 people, as a combination manufacturing facility and tourist attraction. Kerssemakers said the company plans to build a visitor’s center where people can learn how Volvo builds, distributes and markets its cars. A small museum will be devoted to Volvo’s history and a test track will let customers try out new models.

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“In the next two or three months we’ll become a little more concrete how the campus will look like, but we want to make something real good out of it,” he said.

Volvo also will start a program, similar to one already being used in Europe, where customers can visit the Berkeley County site and pick out the car they want so it can be delivered to their hometown weeks later.

Gov. Nikki Haley, recently back from a European trip to recruit automobile manufacturers and suppliers to South Carolina, said she and the state’s Commerce Department met with more than 100 suppliers who eventually could set up shop near the Volvo facility. The nine-day trip also included a stop at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany, and a visit to Volvo’s headquarters in Sweden.

“We know by experience that once you build a factory, global suppliers are interested in producing as close to where the cars are produced as possible,” Kerssemakers said.

Fjording added that many of Volvo’s suppliers are already present in the Southeast, with “some of them looking to expand the existing business they have and some looking to come closer to us so they can add just-in-time supply.”

Reach David Wren at (843) 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_