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.
On the occasion of the operation’s fifteenth anniversary, we met up with Hitt at BMW’s Zentrum museum and customer reception center, where we chatted before touring the airy factory, then heading for Greenville’s humming city center – revitalized in part by BMW’s arrival – for drinks, dinner, and more drinks. A salty, gregarious glad-hander, a consummate fast-thinking, slow-talking Southern gentleman with a flair for community outreach, Hitt discussed the plant’s early days and its plans for the future.
South Carolina was a funny choice for BMW’s first American plant, no?
There had only ever been one car plant here prior to us, and it was an old wagon company called Anderson Motor Company over near Rock Hill, in the ’20s. But South Carolina was hardly a hotbed of car manufacturing. In many ways, it’s like Bavaria, which wasn’t a traditional manufacturing region in Germany for many years, but more agrarian, like the southern United States. The parallels are actually quite interesting.
It’s easy to forget that the idea of BMW building cars in America once seemed pretty bold . . .
When we announced we were coming in 1992, the world was in the middle of a recession, and European car companies like Alfa Romeo were pulling out of the American market, largely because of exchange rates. But the view at BMW was if we were going to grow as a worldwide company, we needed production to follow the market. An American plant was a natural currency hedge, and the thought was: we have to be able to build in multiple currencies in different parts of the world and successfully transfer our engineering capabilities into those cultures and make these cars. Now that we export so much from here, the hedge is even better.
So what do you do?
I’m seen by a lot of the people here in the plant as the local guy . . .
You’re a lot more local than the Bavarians.
Absolutely. People ask me do I speak German, and I say, “No, I speak South Carolinian.” I’m rooted here in the state and know my way around. My advocacy is BMW. My politics is BMW. And as a South Carolinian, the plant can’t get too big to satisfy me. I’m sort of like Switzerland: I get to hear from everybody in the plant, and I have the ears of most of the people that make the decisions, but I’m not necessarily the decision-maker. I’m the message carrier and maybe a little bit of a politician.
How’d you get the job?
Carl [Flesher, then BMW’s North American head of marketing]. One of my favorite stories is about the time he made his first speech [before the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce] in 1992. I was a consultant to him, still at the law firm. We finished writing the speech, and I said, “Let me ask you one other thing . . . ” Carl’s a natty dresser, a real snappy GQ kinda guy. Clothes hang on him really well – I mean, he could wear a sweatshirt and look overdressed. And I looked at him, he had on full Armani, and I said, “Maybe you have a blue blazer and maybe some gray slacks and a red tie, white shirt?” He said, “Yes.” “Wear them,” I told him.
So he made his speech, and he came off the stage and said, “How’d I do?” I said, “You did great.” And he always said, “Best advice you ever gave me was the clothing.”
We became pretty close. One day he looked at me and said, “Hey, you’re a BMW guy.” And I said, “Really? I don’t know what that is.” And he says, “Well, you are one.”
I told my wife, “I think this BMW plant is going to be the most important business event that’s going to happen in South Carolina in a century.” I was enticed.
Was there much local opposition at the beginning?
Not a bit. There was a reasonable level of skepticism in the press, both locally and nationally. You know – BMW takes South Carolina for a ride. It didn’t last long.
The original deal was, we were gonna spend about 300 million bucks, and the state leased us the land that we’re on – fifty years for fifty bucks. And then we have to buy it out for the original price [that the state paid for the land]. It’s like a no-interest loan.
But there was this sort of golden-goose mentality. It’s going on in Chattanooga [where Volkswagen is locating a plant] now. I remember we finished 1993 with about 95 employees – today we have 5000 – and already that year we had requests for more than $15 million worth of philanthropy. The president of the company said to me, “What is the matter with you folks here? We haven’t even built the first car, and everybody’s lining up at our door and asking for handouts.” I said, “Well, you know, we’re a poor state, but we got a lot of great ideas.” We were such an iconic company that there was this great desire for everyone to touch us and find a way to be a part of us.
Has BMWMC developed a good reputation for progressive practices at the plant?
We run turbine generators and get 63 percent of our electrical power from methane gas extracted from a nearby landfill. We have solar power and keep entire areas of the plant unlit to save energy.
People like it here, so we have a pretty high retention rate. We have some mature auto builders now, high-quality craftspeople. Norbert Reithofer, when he’s in the plant, he walks the line; he’s like a rock star. This is his plant, and he still recognizes people’s faces and stops and talks to them.
What didn’t the Germans understand about the people here?
We have no ability to deal with inclement weather. We’re Southerners, and it’s just not in our constitution down here to deal with snow.
I think some of the Americans felt that we were being held to a little higher standard. Which was fair enough – we were a big risk.
I remember when we finally had met the quality criteria, the then-chairman of the company, Bernd Pischetsrieder, flew in. We had an assembly in the cafeteria. Pischetsrieder got up and looked everybody in the eye in a very determined way and praised all of the associates. There were maybe 600 of us at the time, all sitting there in white jackets. We were all proud as punch; we worked so hard to do what was expected of us.
And he praised us for the accomplishment and told us that the really hard work comes now, because you must do it every day from now on. And I think there was a big gulp in the crowd. We started out being all typical American, jumping around in the end zone, celebrating our vic. And then he intoned probably the most chilling thing that I’ve heard from someone in the corporation – that the reputation of BMW worldwide is now in your hands. The world is watching.
The first time I worked with a German colleague, he said to me, “We should have a plan.” So I wrote a plan and brought it back. He looked at me and said, “This is not a plan.” We Americans think differently: mine was an outline. The Germans plan more, pay more attention to detail. They consider every eventuality. We Americans like to plan for practically none of them and go running down the road.
So there’s an interesting blend that has occurred. The cultures started to merge. We got more cautious and detail-oriented; they got a little of our cowboyism. I’m told by some of my German colleagues that it’s a trait that they find they have to lose when they go back home, but they enjoy it while they’re here.
We hired our first group of production associates, and we were going to send fifty or sixty of them over to have some experience in our German plant. And I remember we had to set up a class just to make sure they understood that if they went to the toilet, and if it said H-E-R-R on the door, it was for “Herren,” not for “her.”
Germans are great travelers. Wherever they go, they want to look at all the landscape and soak it all up. They like taking an impression of things and using it as a learning tool.
One day, a couple of them told me they’d found this awful town over in Georgia, one of those little tourist villages made up to be like a German town, with little Heidelberg houses and bad German food – a tourist trap. These BMW guys came back and said “It’s a terrible place. I think they mistook us for Austrians.”