S. Carolina’s key industry might be business poaching

South Carolina’s successful courtship of Boeing Co. would be the talk of Olympia come January if Washington were not facing yet another budget shortfall. Losing the second 787 production line to Charleston was as sobering an economic message as the state has received since J.P. Morgan Chase last fall scooped up the mess that was Washington Mutual.

Boeing, the Chicago company, got a $450 million handshake from South Carolina, compliant labor and more political support for its defense businesses. That’s no small attribute with bids for a new U.S. Air Force tanker likely to be let next year, and nearby Alabama would be the assembly site for EADS, Boeing’s competitor.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is already speculating about a Boeing boost to the state’s defense industry.

There may not have been much Washington could do for Boeing. The state coughed up $3.2 billion in concessions to the aerospace industry five years ago, when there was doubt Boeing would put the first 787 line in Everett. The leaders of the Machinists union are probably still sore from the arm-twisting they got from state officials trying to hold on to the second line.

A timely, well-placed hurricane might have been the only force that could turn Boeing heads.

If there’s one thing South Carolina knows, it’s how to buy business investment. Natives crow about it.

In a Nov. 6 op-ed piece for the Seattle Times, Charleston native Ron Brinson talked about the international investment that has poured into South Carolina in recent decades, and the thousands of jobs created by BMW, Bosch and Michelin, among others. He lectured – to the No. 1 exporting state – about the rigors of global competition. And, of course, he couldn’t resist taunting the Machinists: “If you folks in the beautiful Pacific Northwest can assemble airplanes, we can, too, and probably better.”

No mention of the snafus in South Carolina and elsewhere that those horrible Machinists have been trying to fix for more than a year.

But what former newspaper editor Brinson did not talk about are South Carolina’s native-grown businesses. With good reason.

Can you name one? Can you name a prominent South Carolina entrepreneur?

Thought so.

There are all of four South Carolina companies on the Fortune 500 list. One, AbitibiBowater, is based in Montreal as a result of a merger. In June, the company filed bankruptcy. It’s tough in the paper business.

The other three are Scana, a utility; Sonoco Products, which makes packaging; and ScanSource, which makes barcode scanning devices and similar equipment.

None of those four shows up in the top 10 of a 2008 list of South Carolina’s biggest employers, although privately held Milliken & Co. does.

So do Michelin and BMW.

Itron Inc. owns two plants in the state that were acquired in mergers. Bob Burks, the company’s vice president of North American operations, speaks highly of the work force, including engineering graduates of Clemson University, and the (air-conditioned) climate.

The key to business success is attracting talent, he says, and South Carolina is attractive.

So, one should add, is the state’s Department of Commerce Web site, Look at the home page, then check out Washington’s Commerce site. For a tech-savvy state, it’s pathetic.

There’s much Washington can do to make itself more business-friendly, even if the state does show well in several rankings.

But if the key to economic success in the 21st century is indeed innovation, home-grown Washington companies like Microsoft,, Costco and, oh yeah, Boeing, outclass anything that South Carolina can boast.

Back-slap all you want in Charleston.

Thanksgiving comes early if you don’t mind snatching other peoples’ turkeys.

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