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Bridgestone opens OTR plant in S.C.

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Bridgestone Americas invested more than $1 billion to build and equip this off-the-road radial tire plant in Aiken County, S.C.

GRANITEVILLE, S.C.—Bridgestone Americas Inc. is celebrating its expanded capabilities in Aiken County, S.C., with the opening of a new plant and an ongoing capacity increase to its existing passenger tire facility, both located in Graniteville.

The firm will open its off-the-road radial tire plant with a ceremony on Nov. 18. The 1.6 million-sq.-ft. building represents an investment of $1.1 billion, ORR Plant Manager Ron Brooks said. It currently employs 375 and produces 39.5 raw rubber tons per day.

“I'm really excited,” he said. “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 startup, the people are energetic and it's exciting to be around them.

“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.”

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 the end of 2015, PSR Plant Manager Fran Jones said. The facility currently is producing about 33,000 tires per day.

Jones said the firm is adding six more machines and some curing presses to complete the expansion process.

The PSR 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 PSR facility since it opened in 1998 has been $683 million.

PSR Plant Manager Fran Jones

“The amount of jobs we add to the community is tremendous,” Jones said. “The community is so grateful to have good paying jobs for our folks here to work with.”

Brooks said the ORR plant will expand up to 130 raw rubber tons per day by early 2017. At that time, employment is 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 populate the rest of the building with the necessary equipment.

Brooks said Graniteville is Bridgestone's first OTR radial plant in North America, with the other two being located in Kitakyushu and Shimonoseki, Japan.

“The decision was made a few years ago based on future market forecasts,” he 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.”

The facility currently is running one size, but plans to grow to four with various tread patterns and rim diameters ranging from 49 to 63 inches.

Brooks brings more than 40 years of experience to the ORR plant, which is the third start-up he's been involved in. He's managed three other Bridgestone plants: its bias tire facility in Bloomington, Ill.; the truck bus radial/passenger car radial tire plant in LaVergne, Tenn.; and the truck and bus radial tire facility in Warren County, Tenn.

“I'm never too old to learn,” Brooks said. “Every plant brings new people and people change a bit, so you just adjust.”

Success spurs addition

ORR Plant Manager Ron Brooks

Brooks said Aiken County was the logical choice for the new plant because of the success the firm has had with its PSR facility. 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, the main ones being availability of utilities, the local labor pool, whether or not it 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 right off Route 20 and are just over two hours away from the Port of Charleston, which Brooks said will be utilized to export some of the ORR plant's capacity 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.

“I think South Carolina has a dynamic governor in Nikki Haley. 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. 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 Jones, who helped with the startup of the ORR operation 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.”