On September 8, 1994, BMW built its first car in North America. The event, in a new BMW Manufacturing Company (BMWMC) plant located in a former peach orchard between Spartanburg and Greenville, South Carolina, marked an early milestone on its road to becoming the first European carmaker to establish a lasting manufacturing presence in America.
BMWMC built 3-series, then Z3s and Z4s; now its South Carolina facility is the world's sole supplier for the X5 and the X6, with as much as 71 percent of annual output (hovering around 170,000 units, which exceeds the plant's stated capacity, thanks to regular overtime shifts) destined for export. Plans to build the next X3 are in place, along with the upcoming hybrid version of the X6. Last September, the factory's 1.5 millionth car - a right-hand-drive, dark blue X6 headed for Hong Kong - rolled off the line and the company paused, briefly, to celebrate.
The master of ceremonies on that auspicious day was the charismatic Robert M. "Bobby" Hitt, BMWMC's department manager of corporate and public affairs, by title. Little known outside his industry and state, this native son of the Palmetto State ought to receive a fair helping of credit for BMW's achievement here. It's a triumph that not long ago might have seemed the height of improbability.
Hitt was hired as a sort of all-purpose fixer - part PR man, part sensitivity trainer, part statehouse navigator, and part redneck Miss Manners - to guide the German tenderfoots through the thickets of South Carolina politics, media, and custom. If the plant's smooth ride - from its inception through five expansions, including a recently disclosed plan to bump potential output to 250,000 cars a year - is any indication, Hitt's paycheck was, is, and will continue to be worth signing.
Starting with BMW in 1992, when the company first announced its intention to build a plant somewhere in America (Nebraska was another leading candidate), Hitt - a former newspaper reporter and editor who by the early 1990s had abandoned the journalism game for a nonlegal position at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, a prominent Columbia, South Carolina, law firm - was there when BMW showed up looking for some local counsel. Before long, the carmaker knew it had found the exact man it needed for the job that awaited it, even if BMW hadn't known it was looking for him.
Five presidents and five chairmen of BMWMC have come and gone on their way up the corporate ladder (current BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer was the second president of BMWMC), but Hitt remains the plant's greatest ambassador, providing continuity and always fixing, fixing, fixing.