LAURENS COUNTY: ZF TransmissionsJul 03, 2017 02:12PM ● By Makayla Gay
By L.C. Leach III
When ZF Transmissions, global makers of 8- and 9-speed automatic transmissions for passenger cars, opened a new production facility in 2013 in Laurens County, area leaders saw the venture as long-awaited economic relief.
The county was still reeling from the 2008 recession, when it lost two industrial giants (Brazil’s FITESA and American Titanium Works) that had been expected to build multimillion-dollar plants and create nearly 400 jobs.
But since its first machine began to whirr in Owings Industrial Park in Gray Court, ZF has not only made up for the two losses, it has positioned Laurens County to become one of the state’s premier sites for manufacturing and industrial growth.
“I can’t begin to tell you how vital ZF has been to us,” said Jonathan Coleman, executive director of the Laurens County Development Corporation. “From the day they opened, ZF has had not only a huge impact on our county’s job development, but on our economy as well.”
In only four years, ZF has invested more than $600 million in the Gray Court plant.
The facility has expanded to more than 1.4 million square feet (enough to hold 24 football fields), and grown from 450 employees to more than 2,400 – making ZF by far the largest employer in Laurens County.
“ZF is three times larger than our second-largest employer,” Coleman said. “And their presence proves that we have all the tools – infrastructure, workforce training, industrial sites of all size, spec buildings, plans for future site development, and proximity to two major highways – for large companies to be successful here.”
ZF’s investment in Laurens County is the largest ever made outside of its world headquarters in Germany – and the company plans to invest even more.
“We still have a lot of potential there in terms of improvement and job growth,” said company spokesman Bryan Johnson, from ZF’s North American corporate headquarters in Detroit, Mich. “And we’re looking forward to achieving that potential.”
Ironically, the road to that potential occurred over the last 20 years, during a decline in Laurens County’s population growth and a downturn in the economy.
In the 1990s, Laurens County was seeing the demise of a once-thriving mill industry and glass factory.
From 2009-2015, the county’s population fell by 4.8 percent – from 70,045 to 66,623 — back to levels of the late 1990s.
And after losing FITESA and American Titanium Works, area leaders were left in the unenviable position of finding an economic attraction to turn the county’s fortunes around.
As it happened, the attraction was already in place – and it included ready-made business sites, viable transportation logistics, and a heavy manpower base – all waiting for a company like ZF Transmissions.
“Back around 2010, when we were looking to expand our operations, we looked at more than 60 locations in North America that would fulfill our needs,” Johnson said. “We were looking for an area that had a strong workforce, connections to nearby universities, an established supply force, and was close to rail and highway and an ocean port – and the Gray Court site seemed to fit all that the best.”
ZF’s presence is indicative of an industrial trend in South Carolina.
Since January 2011, the state has recruited more than $22 billion in capital investment and more than 87,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector. During this same period, more than $6 billion and more than 14,000 jobs were created in the automotive-related sector.
“And with the success of ZF Transmissions, the Upstate is in a strong position to continue building on that investment,” said Adrienne Fairwell, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Commerce in Columbia. “ZF’s investment not only helps bolster South Carolina’s manufacturing sector, but it also signals that our state is just right for the automotive industry.”
There is an additional long-term sign of that investment: The Gray Court facility has the capacity to produce 1.2 million transmissions annually – and to prepare for the future, ZF has partnered with Piedmont Technical College and Laurens County School Districts 55 and 56 to create its own apprenticeship program
“Transmissions are complex products,” Johnson said. “And with this kind of apprenticeship, students can earn an associate degree from Piedmont Tech and perhaps begin their careers with us as industrial maintenance technicians in just three short years.”
Coleman added that the success of ZF Transmissions is “just the beginning” of things to come for Laurens County.
“And if we can continue moving forward and putting the right pieces in place, we should have a very successful next 10-15 years,” he said.