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Japan’s at Home in the Upstate

October 11, 2016
Japan’s footprint in the Upstate is worth pausing to consider.

More than 55 Japanese companies have carved a presence in the Upstate, representing more than 11 percent of our foreign-affiliated firms. Statewide, these companies employ 16,300 people, creating products and services from electronic components to logistics. Within manufacturing, the Upstate’s traditional powerhouse, Japanese firms run the gamut from plastics and rubber (Nippon Carbide Industries Inc.), to chemicals (Reynolds Co.), to materials handling systems (Creform).

Toray Industries, Inc., a Tokyo-based manufacturer of fibers and textiles, plastic resins, films and carbon fiber composite materials, broke ground in January 2016 on a $1.4 billion plant in Moore that will span 400 acres and create 500 jobs. Slated to open in summer 2017, the Japanese manufacturer will specialize in production of carbon fiber for customers such as Boeing in North Charleston — and it’s only one example of the intricate connection between Japan and the Upstate.

An Upward Trend in Trade

Over the last 5 years, Japanese companies’ investment in South Carolina has grown steadily, adding up to $3.6 billion. Japan was the state’s fifth largest trading partner in imports, and sixth in exports last year. What’s more, exports to Japan grew 12.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, increasing from $727 million to $1.8 billion, a trend that is expected to continue.

It’s a great leap compared to Japan’s earlier presence in the Upstate. For example, FUJIFILM Corporation was an important win when its north America Manufacturing and R&D headquarters was established in Greenwood in 1988. Yet the acceleration of Japanese companies increased after 2005, when then- Governor Mark Sanford opened the state’s office in Shanghai to better connect with a growing Asian market. South Carolina eventually honed in on Japan with the opening of an office in Tokyo in 2013.

Beyond Business

As business has grown, so has the cultural community. The Japan-America Association is one important element of that community. The group was established in the late 1980s to help create a school for the growing number of Japanese youth. Many of the founding board members remain, and collaborations have included the Japanese program at Clemson University, Furman University’s Asian Studies department, Wofford College, and the International Business program at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business.

Today, one subset of the Japan-America Association caters to Japanese executives. About 30 of them meet regularly to chat and share best practices, and challenges, at gatherings conducted in Japanese. It’s a popular perk among executives, especially when the Upstate is their companies’ first U.S. home.

Broader Regional Engagement

Some of the most exciting engagement between South Carolina and Japan happens through Southeast U.S.-Japan Annual Joint Meeting, or SEUS-Japan. The network connects Southeastern states directly to Japan, most visibly at the annual SEUS-Japan conference held on alternating years in the United States and Japan. The event “promotes business-to-business matchmaking, and knowledge sharing about trade and investment” between Japan and member states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Excitement is building as the Upstate prepares to host the 40th anniversary SEUS-Japan Conference in 2017. Not only will Greenville Host, but South Carolina will have the first ever female conference chair, Minor Shaw. Her appointment comes full circle as her father, prominent businessman Buck Mickel, chaired the 1989 conference.

The Upstate SC Alliance participated at this year’s conference, which kicked off on Sept. 20 in Tokyo at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo.

SEUS-Japan has been considered an important and successful economic development conference, drawing strong delegations that include state senators, economic development and government representatives from both sides of the world. Attendees expect significant connections that move business forward, such as creating B2B supplier opportunities, and actively recruiting business to each other’s countries.

South Carolina has hosted the event twice before: Columbia in 2003, and Charleston in 1989. As preparations are underway for 2017 event to occur in the Upstate—already the state’s hub for Japanese business—this year’s event has extra significance for our participating delegates and companies with ties to Japan.

AFL: A Japanese Success in the Upstate

When you look up at a power cable or cell tower, you’re likely seeing something AFL helped to create. The company manufactures products related to fiber optics and other components for the power industry. Headquartered in Tokyo, AFL – America Fujikura Limited – was formed as a subsidiary of Alcoa and Fujikura Ltd. in 1984 to manufacture fiber optic cables at a Duncan facility. Duncan became AFL’s headquarters when Fujikura bought out Alcoa’s share in 2005.

Grant Burns, Vice President & General Counsel for AFL and a member of the Upstate SC Alliance Executive Committee, attributes AFL’s success to the Upstate’s business environment.

“The world truly comes to the upstate of South Carolina to do business.  This stems from decades of history working with companies from Japan, Germany, and every place in between.,” Burns said. “The upstate South Carolina business environment and workforce success have led AFL to grow its presence in the Duncan area as the company’s business has grown so dramatically through the years.  Although the workforce component tightens as our area flourishes, AFL continues to look for ways to grow in the upstate.”

For AFL’s senior leadership, movement between Japan and the Upstate are a fact of life today. The firm has 750 employees in the Upstate. AFL’s chairman is Japanese, and its vice chairman lives and works in the Upstate. The CEO is heavily involved in the Japanese arm of the business, moving regularly between the two countries. Last month the company hosted the Chairman and the CEO of Fujikura, and the Upstate SC Alliance was pleased to host reception in their honor.

During that visit, Fujikura’s president, Masahiko Ito noted to Burns that, “When I visit South Carolina, I can sense how the Upstate Alliance, Fujikura, and AFL have a common theme: We all truly care about the communities where we do business and the places that our employees call home. Fujikura employees who have lived here during assignments at AFL agree: This is indeed a beautiful, vibrant and friendly place.”

A major growth area for AFL is in the data center business, which is booming worldwide. AFL is working to stay ahead of the curve, designing solutions for that industry. Strong support from Japan has included a recent acquisition to help strengthen AFL’s market position. It’s just one example of how the Upstate-Japan connection reaps rewards at home and abroad.


TOPICS: International, Manufacturing, Upstate Thoughts, News You Can Use