Exports at BMW's Spartanburg, S.C., plant have jumped 80 percent since 2009, as the German automaker tapped new markets in China, India and South America to offset lagging sales during the recent recession, the company's spokesman told the Columbia Rotary club on Monday.
The plant produced a record 276,000 cars in 2011 -- BMW X3s, X5s, X6s -- and exported 70 percent of them, or 192,000. It sold the popular SUVs to 130 countries throughout the world, Max Metcalf told the group.
Much of the rise is due to the global popularity of the new X3, sales of which grew 115 percent worldwide from 2010 to 2011.
"We adjusted our product to meet the market," he said.
BMW's export numbers propelled South Carolina to overtake Michigan as the No. 1 exporter of automobiles.
The rising export numbers are a big part of the reason BMW is making a $900 million investment to expand the Spartanburg plant, the fifth since the company announced in 1992 it would come to the state. The expansion, intended to add the new X4 SUV to its line, is to be completed by 2014.
The expansion would bring total employment at the plant to about 8,000, and boost production to 350,000 vehicles a year, Metcalf said.
That could improve the company's and the state's export numbers even more.
BMW exports from South Carolina jumped 52 percent in 2011, surpassing Michigan for the No. 1 spot among automobile exporters. South Carolina previously ranked first in auto exports in 2009.
The state also ranked first among U.S. states in tire exports, holding nearly 30 percent of the share of U.S.-made exported tires. Michelin and Bridgestone have been stalwart manufacturers in the state for years and have announced expansions and Continental is building a new plant in Sumter County.
One possible impediment to continued exports growth, however, would be failure to dredge the port of Charleston, Metcalf said. South Carolina's deep water port was part of the reason the company came to South Carolina in the first place.
"We wanted to build a global plant," he said.
A widened Panama Canal is expected to open in 2014 -- the same year as the new BMW expansion -- allowing the next generation of super cargo vessels to trek between the U.S. East Coast to burgeoning Asian markets. And states are scrambling to find money to deepen their ports to attract the bigger ships.
"So that's huge for us," Metcalf said of the port dredging. "We have to accommodate the ships of the future."
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