It’s a narartive that’s been likened to the American Dream—humble beginnings and decades of hard work that produced a multibillion-dollar operation. That’s the story behind Sundaram-Clayton USA LLC (SCL), the global company expanding the manufacturing industry in rural Dorchester County.
On Friday, SCL officially cut the ribbon on its first U.S. plant in Ridgeville. The global giant is part of TVS Group, India’s largest automotive parts maker and distributor also specializing in making motorcycles, scooters and two- and three-wheelers.
“Today is the beginning of a new and exciting chapter for SCL, and I have a feeling it’s going to be remarkable,” said Srikanth Padmanabhan, president of engine business for Cummins Inc., SCL’s largest client.
The grand opening ceremony, nothing short of grandiose and celebratory, was the culmination of five years of the company’s searching and planning for a Western expansion and the realization of nearly three years of working with the county officials.
“It’s always kind of a special day; it’s almost kind of like birthing a baby,” said John Truluck, economic development director for Dorchester County. “You’ll have all this build up and anticipation, and then it takes a while to get it all built so it’s always exciting to see the 3-D version. You know, you’ve seen the plans but (now) you see it (finally) realized.”
Part of that behind-the-scenes build up included Truluck’s visit to India, where he said he discovered the true wealth and size of SCL.
“It’s a huge company that does a lot of different things,” he said. “We feel like this will be one of those gifts that keeps on giving.”
Part of Friday’s excitement included shocking pyrotechnics that wowed the crowd and lit up the stage on more than one occasion. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also served as guest speaker.
“We’re delighted to have this company here,” he said of SCL. “Their story is actually the American dream coming from India.”
After the event, the state’s top leader—joined by company officials—participated in a ceremonial inauguration of each of the machines scattered across the plant. At the bush of a button, each piece of innovative technology sprang to life.
The manufacturing site—a $90 million investment—will fabricate aluminum cast products for automobiles. It sits inside the county’s Ridgeville Industrial Campus off Highway 78, with one building already constructed on the 50-acre property and two more to come.
“This is the first step, but Sundaram-Clayton has the opportunity to do all kinds of things,” Truluck said. “You sort of see this building, and it’s only partially full, and to know that they could fill it up and do two more…is pretty exciting.”
The site’s workforce is expected to total at least 230 within five years, though company officials said they have high hopes that number can reach 500 in the coming years. The plant currently has 54 team members hired.
“We have a team with a great skill set, with a drive to succeed,” said Lakshmi Venu, SCL’s joint managing director.
Both the Palmetto State and Lowcountry were purposefully picked for the Indian project. Close proximity to Cummins—located in North Charleston—was a chief reason behind the local site.
SCL officials also touted the plant’s proximity to the Port Authority and Charleston-area’s transportation infrastructure as driving factors behind locating to the area.
“It really is one of the most happening states, and Charleston is one of the most happening cities,” said Venu Srinivasan, SCL chairman.
McMaster agreed, singing the praises of the state and its residents, positive criticism he told the crowd he’s heard more than once from companies choosing to locate here.
“They say that the people of South Carolina are unique; they’re different,” he said. “Other states have great, great people but the people of South Carolina are a little bit different in that they are loyal, smart and determined; and the main thing is when they give you their word, they keep it.”
Cummins produces diesel and alternative fuel engines and generators, among other products. But SCL officials said they’re also considering supplying Volvo Cars USA, LLC. After setting up its North American headquarters on the town’s Berkeley County side and starting mass production at its automotive plant in fall 2018, the German-based company is also quickly transforming the Ridgeville area.
‘Higher standard of living’
With the state and region’s focus the last couple of years on growing manufacturing skills among workforce members and high school students, three SCL employees spoke to the crowd and commended the company.
“I’m really, truly proud to be a part of this opportunity,” said William Wages.
According to Esther Wilkins, the company’s human resources manager, the job growth and industry development occurring in the county’s upper end has been lacking; and she expressed her belief that SCL will change that.
“Ridgeville has really needed something like this in the community, and it’s been well received,” she said. “I get a lot of my employees from the rural area: Orangeburg, Santee, Ridgeville, St. George,” she said. “They’ve been starving for something like this. …Now employees don’t have to drive an hour, and hour-and-a-half to Charleston for a decent job; they’ve got it right here.”
According to Truluck, that’s the goal of bringing industry to the county—to create jobs and boost standard of living for local residents.
“Quite frankly, that’s the point; that’s why we do this,” he said. “It’s so that people that live here can work here and raise their families here and be successful here. That’s the heart of the whole reason why economic development exists. When we’re recruiting companies, we’re looking at those quality jobs so that Dorchester County citizens can have a higher standard of living.”
Wilkins’ own background as a North Charleston resident and Charleston-area native enticed company officials to hire her.
“They looked for someone who had roots in Charleston because they figured that they would know the culture, and I do,” she said.
After dedicating nearly three decades of her life to career work with the paper mill and existing companies like WestRock, formerly MeadWestVaco, Wilkins opted for a change.
“I saw this as an opportunity to start off with a company that’s new,” she said of SCL. “I have a love for the Dorchester County area. I’ve always dealt with Charleston-County area, but I’ve—maybe in the last couple of years of my career—I’ve kind of transitioned on over to Dorchester County; and it’s a different group of people, and I love it.”
Providing better quality of life for rural communities is one of SCL’s top goals, having fulfilled their mission in India over the last century. In 1911 the TVS group established the country’s first bus system.
“It is the story of a passion that created a multi billion-dollar conglomerate,” said Warren Peper, Post and Courier journalist and emcee for the ribbon-cutting event.
Production at the local SCL plant is expected to commence in September.
In the late 1920s, when General Motors brought its passenger cars to India, TVS expanded its business to include the sale and service of GM vehicles. In the 1960s, TVS turned its focus to manufacturing auto parts, and today boasts revenues exceeding $8 billion and 40,000-plus employees across 73 companies in 129 countries.
TVS officially started its SCL company in 1962 to specifically manufacture air brake systems for commercial vehicles. The company’s aluminum die-cast factory was established a decade later and its partnership with Cummins established in the 1998. Today, SCL supplies Cummins operations across four continents, generating an annual revenue of nearly $60 million.