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Greenville Business Magazine

25th Anniversary: Greenville wouldn’t be the city it is today without its engineers

Oct 04, 2018 03:57PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter

You wouldn’t be reading our 25th anniversary issue if it weren’t for engineers. And were it not for some help from one the world’s largest engineering firms, founded right here, you might not have enjoyed a cold beer on a hot summer night at Downtown Alive. Neither could you catch a show at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena or Peace Center, nor take your Beemer out for a spin on BMW’s test track without Greenville’s top tinkerers.

In a word, Greenville’s engineers engineered Greenville.

“Our employees provide leadership in every aspect of their life in Greenville,” says George Biediger, a 40-year employee of Fluor. “They’re involved in religious organizations, homeowners associations. Just about any charity in town, you look at the board of directors, you’re going to have Fluor people there.”

“We’re pretty highly motivated to accomplish things,” says Biediger, now vice president of project development and investments at the global behemoth whose annual $19.5 billion annual revenues ultimately grew out of Daniel Construction, founded here in 1935.

In fact, Biediger served on the board of the Greenville Central Area Partnership, which sought to rejuvenate the dreadful downtown of the early ’80s. The partnership, he says, helped launch a Thursday night street party “with a beer truck and a band. Then gradually we got restaurants to stay open at night, and now we have a lot of folks downtown, and that’s why we’re so successful.”

Hometown engineers also designed and built, among so many iconic projects, the 22-story Daniel Building, now the Landmark Building, once the tallest building in the Carolinas; downtown’s kickstarter, the Hyatt Regency; and BMW’s Research Center at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

What engineers build here — and way beyond Greenville — builds on itself.

Sitting in his office at the sprawling campus where General Electric arrived 50 years ago this year, John Lammas muses about the arrival of mega-manufacturers.

“Sub-suppliers were attracted to this region, building a whole infrastructure,” says Lammas, a British-born aviation engineer who’s now vice president of power generation technology and chief technology officer at G.E. Power. The Greenville site happens to be the world’s largest gas turbine manufacturing plant.

“When I first came here 12 years ago,” he says, “we had sort of a fledgling infrastructure, and I think we’ve migrated to a working infrastructure.”

True that. In 2016, G.E. opened its 125,000-square-foot Advanced Manufacturing Works, a $400 million-plus R&D investment. Today, G.E. has 3,000 employees based at the Greenville site, with an average tenure of 14 years, according to a G.E. Power spokesperson.

“When a company invests hundreds of millions of dollars in manufacturing and infrastructure, they are in it for the long haul,” says Kevin Bean, president and CEO of O’Neal Inc., another homegrown engineering firm, which started in 1975.

When Bean, a Pennsylvania native, joined the company in 1994, he was O’Neal’s 90th employee. Now he oversees 260 employee-owners.

Here’s the thing about engineers. They earn good money.

In 1993, U.S. Commerce Department statistics show, “engineering and management services” paid an average salary of $30,064 a year — worth about $52,000 today. In 2017, engineers took home average pay of $99,311, more than $35,000 higher than the median income in Greenville, according to Upstate SC Alliance.

Greenville also accounts for a quarter of all engineers in the state, figures show. The Upstate now boasts the nation’s second-highest concentration of industrial engineers, says John Lummus, the alliance’s president and CEO.

Today, nearly 11,000 engineers work here in fields including aerospace, agriculture, chemical, mechanical, electrical, nuclear, and biomedical, among multiple others.

Greenville’s transformation over the last 25 years from textile capital to global manufacturing juggernaut is well known. Nowadays, given technology’s hyper-pace, engineers see even more opportunity, not just for them, but for Greenville’s growth, too.

“I feel that sometimes people get caught up in new tech companies coming to the Greenville area,” Bean says. “I am grateful, however, that Greenville is blessed with an existing manufacturing base that continues to develop new products, retool their manufacturing base, and provide consistent growth for our community.”

Technology is increasingly fusing together manufacturing, which makes stuff, and engineering, which designs stuff; the shift is making Greenville a one-stop shop where components can be designed, manufactured, and repaired all in one place.

“Greenville offers a real advantage,” says Lammas, who has worked worldwide. “For me personally, we have engineers at global sites, but this is the only place where we do everything around a product’s an entire lifecycle.”

Engineers bring home yet another currency — aptitude — in what Lummus calls “the knowledge economy.”

“From the economic-development perspective, businesses often locate where they see other companies succeed and where they know there’s a workforce with experience and expertise,” he says.

Lammas agrees: “When you bring an industry to an area, when you make it a hub, you start bringing in brainpower, you start bringing in training; schools get better.”

Everyone interviewed here extends substantial credit to Clemson’s robust and ever-expanding engineering programs.

“If you look at our workforce, if you look where they graduated from,” Lammas notes of G.E.’s 3,000-some employees in Greenville, “the biggest number is from Clemson.”

Adds Bean: “If you want to see how the industry has changed, compare the degrees offered by engineering schools in 1988 to 2018.  The specialization has quadrupled the number of programs offered. In 1988, I had to select between 10 areas of focus; now, students have over 40 tracks to consider.”

He then quips, “It certainly has increased the level of competition at the local elementary science fairs.”

While engineers frequently chat up education, Lummus adds, “From the talent-attraction perspective, employees are drawn to destinations with multiple opportunities, where they know that changing jobs doesn’t necessarily equate to uprooting their families.”

As for engineers engineering Greenville’s future?

“The IT companies, the ones that have grown, they make nothing,” Lammas says. “I think that’s going to change where people who make things are going to become more important, and I think that’s where Greenville could be the next area of growth.

“We’re not research, we’re not Silicon Valley. We’re this better-balanced system, and I think that’s where the path forward is going to be.”