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Aerospace boom pays off for S.C. manufacturer

Chuck Crumbo
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Phoenix Specialty, a company that will celebrate its 110th birthday next year, finds itself on the leading edge of South Carolina’s booming aerospace industry.

Phoenix Specialty sales manager Bob Smith, right, flanked by marketing assistant Allison Bird, talks with Geoff Caywood of General Dynamics during a visit at the company's booth during last month's S.C. Aerospace Conference in Columbia. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)The family-owned firm, located along Main Highway in Bamberg, makes parts – from washers to shims – used in the manufacturing of jet engines that power airplanes, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliners assembled in North Charleston.

“My focus is making parts that our customers use to make their products, and that their products are successful,” said Robert Hurst, president of CEO of Phoenix.

Phoenix is one of more than 400 civilian S.C. companies that employ 17,000 workers serving the aerospace industry, S.C. Department of Commerce statistics show. Phoenix itself has 100 employees.

Aerospace is outpacing other industries in South Carolina. A study released last month at the third annual S.C. Aerospace Conference in Columbia reported that the annual economic impact of the state’s aerospace industry totals to $19 billion, an increase of $2 billion since last measured in 2014.   

The annual economic impact from the private sector aerospace cluster alone is nearly $9 billion, according to the study conducted by the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business. Additionally, for every 10 jobs created in the private sector of the aerospace cluster, another 13 jobs are created across the state.

HurstSince 2010, when the state’s economy began recovering from the Great Recession, annual employment growth in the aerospace cluster has averaged 11.8%, which is more than seven times higher than the 1.6% average annual growth rate for the state overall, the economic impact study showed.

The study also found that the average wage for private sector aerospace workers was $70,000 per year, 69% more than the state average of $41,338, and the annual manufacturing sector wage of $53,350.

The study also showed that the industry is diversifying and trending towards sustainable growth, said Joey Von Nessen, USC research economist and author of the economic impact study. “We see that the majority of firms continue to be small businesses with fewer than five employees.  We also see growth – not just in aircraft manufacturing, but also in engine manufacturing, instruments manufacturing and other types of firms.”

At Phoenix, aerospace accounts for 50% of the company’s $20 million in annual revenue, Hurst said. However, he added that Phoenix’s aerospace business was established long before Boeing announced in 2009 selection of North Charleston as the location for final assembly of 787 Dreamliners.

For example, GE Aviation, which makes jet engines and has operations in Greenville, has been a long-time customer of Phoenix, Hurst said.

Besides Boeing, Hurst noted that Gulfstream, which makes small business jets, has a well-established base in the Southeast with operations in Georgia and Florida and Boeing’s No. 1 competitor, a European consortium called Airbus, opened an aircraft assembly plant in Mobile, Ala., and in April delivered its first completed aircraft – an A321 – to JetBlue.

Being a manufacturer of small parts, Phoenix doesn’t have to be next door to a customer. Orders are shipped in boxes so all Phoenix needs is for FedEx or UPS to stop at the Bamberg plant and make daily pickups.

Although the majority of the company’s business is based in the United States, Phoenix was one of four companies that joined the South Carolina delegation at the Farnborough International Airshow in Hampshire, England. 

The air show provided an opportunity for plane makers to demonstrate civilian and military aircraft to potential customers and investors. It also allowed manufacturers like Phoenix a chance to make contact with current and future customers to increase business and exports.

Other companies in the S.C. delegation were TIGHITCO, UEC Electronics, and Roy Metal Finishing.  The companies, which each had a kiosk the South Carolina booth, traveled to Farnborough as part of the SC Grant – State Trade Export Program (STEP) funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration, according to S.C. Commerce Department spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell.

The STEP program’s objectives are to increase the number of small businesses that are exporting, and to increase the value of exports for those small businesses that are currently exporting, Fairwell said. It also helps cover the businesses’ costs to attend and exhibit at the show.

Hurst said his company attends four or five trade shows annually in the United States, but Farnborough was its first international show.

“We felt it was very worthwhile,” Hurst said. “There were definite business opportunities that we identified and have got to work on.”

Hurst is optimistic about his company’s future in aerospace and the industry’s growth in South Carolina.

Boeing, which employs about 7,000 at its North Charleston operation, will impact the state’s aerospace industry even more than BMW has spurred growth of the automotive sector.

“We want to make sure we take advantage of every opportunity in the Southeast to supply parts to the industry,” Hurst said.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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