GRANITEVILLE, S.C.Bridgestone Americas Inc. is celebrating its expanded capabilities in Graniteville with the opening of its $1 billion-plus radial OTR tire plant and an ongoing capacity increase to its existing passenger tire facility, both located in Aiken County, S.C.
I'm really excited, said Ron Brooks, manager of the radial OTR plant. It's a brand new facility on 550 acres. It's a U.S.- certified wildlife habitat area and the campus is absolutely beautiful. Any time you're involved in a new start-up, the people are energetic and it's exciting to be around them.
The 1.6 million-sq.-ft. plant opened Nov. 18 with a projected daily capacity of 39.5 metric tons of raw rubber processing and 375 employees.
It's going to be a beautiful facility for our customers to see and I think they're going to be really impressed with it.
Various speakers participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony kicking off the official opening of the plant. Kazuhisa Nishigai, chief operating officer and representative board member for Bridgestone Americas' parent, Bridgestone Corp., said it is time for a new challenge for the tire maker and invited everyone to take it on together. He spoke about the new plant's features and sustainable aspects, noting these technologies align with Bridgestone's commitment to sustainability.
Tomohiro Fukuda, vice president and officer and COO for Bridgestone Corp.'s specialty tire business, spoke about what a milestone the giant OTR tire plant is for the company because it is the first of its kind for Bridgestone outside Japan.
Bridgestone Americas Inc. President and CEO Gary Garfield said the plant will keep the company front and center in the important OTR market.
Steve Shelton, senior vice president, technology, manufacturing and procurement for Bridgestone Americas, called the company's employees its greatest asset.
During the ceremony, Mr. Brooks illustrated Bridgestone's commitment to the Aiken County community by donating a $25,000 check to the Koda's Kids Foundation, a local nonprofit organization founded in 2012 by Jacksonville Jaguar linebacker Dekoda Watson. The foundation provides a scholarship to one student from each of the seven high schools in Aiken County. Recipients do not have to be athletes. The organization also hosts annual football and cheerleading camps.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone also completed the addition of a new warehouse to its nearby passenger tire plant and will continue to install equipment in the 2.4 million-sq.-ft. building until it is producing 37,750 tires per day by year-end 2015, Plant Manager Fran Jones said, up from 33,000 currently.
Ms. Jones said the tire maker is adding six more tire building machines and some curing presses to complete the expansion process. The facility employs 1,340 and projects to reach 1,453 when the expansion is complete.
The expansion added 740,000 square feet to the building. Bridgestone invested $200 million with $26 million invested in the added warehouse capacity. The total investment in the car tire plant since it opened in 1998 has been $683 million.
The amount of jobs we add to the community is tremendous, Ms. Jones said. The community is so grateful to have good paying jobs for our folks here to work with.
Mr. Brooks said the OTR tire plant will expand to up to 130 raw rubber tons per day by early 2017, with employment projected to grow to 550. The construction phase of the two-phase expansion is projected to be complete in April 2015.
Once the construction is finished, the firm will equip the expanded portion with the necessary equipment.
Graniteville is Bridgestone's first radial OTR tire plant outside of Japanin Kitakyushu and Shimonosekialthough the company has a fourth plant, in Rayong, Thailand, under construction. That $615 million project is slated to start production in the first half of 2015.
The decision was made a few years ago based on future market forecasts, Mr. Brooks said.
We were built to respond to that forecast and we're just now beginning production. We'll be in our qualification stage all the way through the end of 2016, which means we'll be qualifying different sizes to meet that different market demand.
As the facility opens, it's running just one size but plans to grow to four, with various tread patterns and rim diameters ranging from 49 to 63 inches.
Mr. Brooks brings more than 40 years of experience to the OTR plant, which is the third start-up he's been involved in. He has managed three other Bridgestone plants: its bias-ply OTR tire plant in Bloomington, Ill.; the truck/bus and passenger radial tire plant in LaVergne, Tenn.; and the company's truck and bus radial tire unit in Warren County, Tenn.
I'm never too old to learn, he said. Every plant brings new people and people change a bit, so you just adjust.
Mr. Brooks said Aiken County was the logical choice for the new plant because of the success the firm has had with its car tire plant. The relationships with the local community and government agencies were already in place, making the transition easy.
Bridgestone looked at a variety of factors when considering sites for its plant, he said, the main ones being availability of utilities, the local labor pool, whether or not the tire maker can attract the technical resources it needs, what colleges and universities are nearby and how favorable states are in their relationships with businesses.
The plants are located off Route 20 just about two hours from the Port of Charleston, which Mr. Brooks said will be used to export some of the factories' output overseas.
South Carolina meets all of our needs, he said. We had already developed a strong community relationship and a strong state relationship. Those things that normally take time to learn and develop and culture were already here.
Mr. Brooks lauded South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haleywho was out of the country at the time of the ceremonysaying, I think she's made it very inviting and she is very progressive in recruiting new business to South Carolina. They also have a strong commissioner of commerce in Bobby Hitt. Her whole staff has been great to work with.
One way the state makes it inviting for businesses is through its ReadySC program, which is a technical work force training program. Mr. Brooks said the program helped Bridgestone with pre-screening efforts and aids in training and development of employees.
This state has done a lot to encourage new businesses to locate here, said Ms. Jones, who helped with the start-up of the OTR plant since 2011 until she took over her current position in April.
It's a very business-friendly state and a place where the business community wants the jobs here, so they work very closely with us.
Chris Sweeney is a reporter for Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business. Reporter Jennifer Karpus contributed to this story.