From pasta to machine guns, from sausage casings to valves that make diesel trucks and buses run cleaner, Midlands’ manufacturers produce a diverse array of products, many of which are shipped all over the world. While it might not seem that these manufacturers have much in common, they are all drawn by what the area has to offer: a loyal and skilled workforce, a business-friendly environment and a location that provides a great quality of life.
These and other factors were no doubt what attracted Nephron Pharmaceuticals, an Orlando-based manufacturer of generic respiratory medications, to announce plans to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility near the Midland’s new Amazon distribution center. Nephron already has facilities totaling 300,000 square feet in operations spread across three states. With Nephron’s $313 million investment in Columbia, the company will double its size over the next three years and create 707 jobs at the Columbia center — more than now exist in their Orlando headquarters.
William and Lou Kennedy, a married couple who are both USC grads and met at a USC football game, own the privately held company. The Kennedys recently donated $30 million to the university’s pharmacy college for the establishment of The Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center, which will promote collaborative, interdisciplinary work between business and pharmacy studies.
Lou, who is now the company’s president and CEO since her husband stepped down to become a strategic consultant to the business, has said that some of the reasons Nephron chose Columbia for its new plant are to give USC students a place for employment when they graduate, and to provide an economic boost to her alma mater’s state.
Nephron is one of four companies in the United States that specializes in blow-fill-seal manufacturing, a technology that forms, fills and seals vials of medication in sterile, enclosed areas without human intervention. Nephron was a pioneer in the development and marketing of individually wrapped and bar-coded medications, which are now standard safety practices in U. S. hospitals. The company has plans for future growth in respiratory, ophthalmic and injectable medications.
FN Manufacturing, a Belgian-owned manufacturer of automatic weapons for the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, employs 460 people here in Columbia. The plant makes the M240L machine gun for the infantry and for vehicle-mounted use. This is a lighter weight version of the M240B. They also manufacture M16A4 rifles, M249 squad automatic weapons and a variety of other guns, including handguns and rifles.
The 31-year-old production facility in Columbia began a re-industrialization process in 2000 to become a state-of-the-art manufacturer. Ralph Young, FN’s vice-president of human resources, says, “This effort improved our costs and improved our quality. When we were needed to support the Department of Defense in the War on Terror, we were able to respond rapidly.”
William Blyther, shown machining the piston rod for the M240 machine gun, has been with FN Manufacturing for nearly 30 years. Photography courtesy of FN Manufacturing.
“It’s not your grandfather’s workshop anymore,” he continues. “Many of the machines our employees are operating cost upwards of $100,000.”
Some of the employees have been with the plant since it opened. “When working side by side with folks for 15 to 20 years, you develop relationships. So many folks have been here for so long that they have relationships with the other employees that are as strong as family relations,” Ralph says. “We also have a lot of families working here. For instance, we’ve got a father who’s a supervisor in the barrel line and his daughter works in the tool room. We’ve got a high-tech environment and really good human relations.”
Columbia provides exceptional labor to the plant. “We have a great workforce. A large portion of that workforce has machining skills where they are working sometimes in plus/minus ten-thousandths of an inch. It’s high quality, tight dimensions,” Ralph says. “Our workforce is very skilled, including the assemblers, so that each and every gun is going to function when it gets out into the field. We continue to thrive because of our skilled, dedicated employees who take personal pride in getting a high quality product out of the door.”
The company is also good to its employees. “Our benefits are in the top 10 percent, and our salaries are in the top quartile for this area,” Ralph adds.
There’s a certain curiosity that the public and media have about the people who manufacture weapons. “We’ve had folks interviewed by TV stations in the past, asking our employees, ‘What do your friends say when they find out you work at a gun plant?’ Our employees said, ‘My friends are jealous and wish they worked here. They think it’s cool.’”
“Our employees are proud of the fact that they work here,” he says.
Ralph, who is originally from Baltimore, has been at the Columbia plant for 22 years. He believes that Columbia offers a business-friendly environment, and he personally enjoys the lifestyle Columbia offers. “I love the woods and the lakes here,” he says. “I don’t like the traffic and noise of a Baltimore or Atlanta. Columbia is a nice city, without all the negatives that come with an overcrowded, big city.”
Another company that has found success in the Midlands is DEVRO, which was named Teepak before it was bought by a Scottish company. DEVRO manufactures sausage casing made out of beef protein. The plant employees almost 400 area residents and recently expanded its operations by opening an additional production line, making the facility more efficient and faster. This marks the fourth expansion the company has made at this location.
The plant produces more than 200,000 miles of sausage casing each year. Their casings are used by some of the biggest names in sausages and beef sticks. Additionally, the Midlands’ plant exports 40 to 50 percent of what they produce to 28 foreign countries.
George Hayes, who is DEVRO’s quality manager and has been with the plant since before it made the first casing in 1977, says, “We have a nice, diversified business base that helps us be less impacted by economic changes.”
In the United States, sausage makers are becoming more innovative to meet customer demands for healthier and more varied sausages, using meats other than pork and often adding fruits and other taste tempters. These sausages still need casings. In the foreign markets, George says, “Sausage is a very efficient way to get protein in some of the countries we export to, and it is a good, relatively inexpensive meat source.”
Some of the casings are used in ways you might not expect. “We have environmentally conscious customers who want to feed fish off the coast of Australia. They want to put things in the bag, or casing, to feed the fish while diving. And then they want to be sure that if the bag is dropped, the fish can eat that, too. Since our casings are made out of beef protein, the fish can eat them, and there is no litter.”
DEVRO has plants in Scotland, Australia and the Czech Republic. The Midlands plant offers good jobs for the Columbia area. “It’s a great place to work with a very people-friendly environment. We are very safety conscious and offer a good, dependable place to work,” George says. “We have a great work force, our employees’ work ethic is very good and the people are well-educated. We wouldn’t be expanding here if we weren’t happy. We find the local government to be very supportive, and we are active in the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.”
The plant is a magnet for engineering talent, and being near USC helps. “Some of our engineers like to have the opportunity to study for advanced degrees while they work. We have a few who have earned their masters degrees at USC since they’ve been here,” he says. “Columbia is also very attractive because of things like the Koger Center, and you’re not far from the beach. College sports are great, and you’re not far from Charlotte or Atlanta if you like pro sports.”
Greg Butler, plant manager at Pure Power Technologies, agrees that the Columbia metropolitan area offers a lot to manufacturers. “A lot of manufacturers pick South Carolina because it has a great workforce, transportation infrastructure and quality of life,” he says.
From its two Columbia-area facilities, Pure Power Technologies develops, tests, manufactures and delivers products that reduce diesel emissions for trucks and buses while improving fuel efficiency. Pure Power has a technical center in Columbia and a manufacturing plant in Blythewood. The company plans to double the size of its research and development center from 20,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet in the coming months.
Dezzani, metallurgist at Pure Power Technologies, analyzes material using a scanning electron microscope at the company’s Blythewood Quality Lab. Photography by Robert Clark.
Things weren’t always so bright for this Columbia manufacturer, which has changed hands over the years. Navistar, which owns Pure Power Technologies, rejuvenated the facility in 2010, when the workforce was down to only 180 employees. Now Pure Power employs more than 400 people.
Greg greatly admires the company’s employees. “They’ve been through tough times, but the people who work at our SC facilities never gave up. They continued to work hard. They made people see our value, so much so that it’s now our division headquarters. That speaks volumes about these employees who make highly technical components for the industry.”
One of Pure Power’s key products is an Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) valve, which helps diesel engines run more efficiently by recirculating part of the exhaust back through the combustion process, causing a more complete fuel burn and decreasing emissions. Greg says, “Demand for our products has gone outside of the bounds of North America. We have started exporting to Asia, Europe and South America.
“Diesel is here to stay and here to grow,” he says. Diesel is widely used in cars and trucks in Europe. “The market in the States continues to grow. It’s no longer dirty and noisy —diesel now rivals gasoline.”
As government regulations push for and consumers demand cleaner emissions and higher fuel economy, Pure Power’s products and technology will be in increasingly greater demand. Thus, more growth is expected for the Midland’s manufacturer.
In preparation, Pure Power wants to be sure it has the workforce it needs by ensuring there are enough skilled workers to fill future jobs at the plant. “We’ve linked up with Midlands Tech with an apprenticeship program and employ numerous interns from USC,” Greg says. “We’re also working with the Midlands Educational Business Alliance (MEBA) to bring manufacturing to middle- and high-school students. We’re interested in filling our ranks as we move forward. We’ll need more technical people and engineers.”
“Manufacturing offers a solid career, and there’s not enough emphasis on manufacturing in this area, which is something we are working jointly on with the Columbia Chamber of Commerce. Our employees are doing well for themselves. They work in a clean environment performing highly skilled tasks,” he says.
Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. Pure Power’s very capital-intensive environment and the skill of its workers allow for precision manufacturing that was unheard of in the previous generation. “A human hair is about 83 microns thick,” Greg says. “We can machine and measure down to a tolerance of only one micron.”