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Construction rolls on at S.C. tire plant

Construction crews are on schedule with building the Continental Tire plant in Sumter County, said a company officials. (Photo/Continental Tire)
Construction crews are on schedule with building the Continental Tire plant in Sumter County, said a company official. (Photo/Continental Tire)
By Chuck Crumbo
Published Jan. 16, 2012

SUMTER, S.C. — Seven months after construction began, Continental Tire the Americas’ first plant in South Carolina is about 30% complete and on schedule.

Most of the superstructure is in place, and the installation of some equipment will soon begin at the $500 million, 1 million-square-foot facility rising from a 330-acre grassy field off U.S. Highway 521, south of downtown Sumter.

The tallest structure, a four-story mixing plant, will be the first to be equipped with machinery.

Significant progress also has been made in the tire building, stock preparation, curing, final finish and warehouse.

Although the corporate public relations department has issued a news release that said the project “continues to remain ahead of schedule,” plant manager Craig Baartman declined to quantify the amount of time.

This rendering shows the design and look for the Continental tire plant under construction in Sumter, S.C. (Image/Provided)
This rendering shows the design and look for the Continental Tire plant under construction in Sumter, S.C. (Image/Provided)
Click image for a larger view
“I wouldn’t say we are ahead of schedule. I would say we are on plan,” Baartman said.

The initial investment covers the first two phases of the plant, with construction to be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Continental’s plant is one of four tire projects under construction in South Carolina.

Michelin North America, headquartered in Greenville, is investing $750 million and building an off-the-road tire plant in Anderson County and expanding its existing OTR facility in Lexington County.

The expansion project at the Lexington County facility is the second in a year. In 2011, Michelin announced it was spending $200 million and creating about 270 jobs at the Lexington OTR, which builds the company’s Earthmover brand of tires.

Bridgestone Americas, based in Nashville, Tenn., has committed $1.2 billion to build a new off-the-road plant at its Aiken County, S.C., facility and expand the company’s existing car and light truck facility.

Germany-based Continental, which has its division for the Americas headquartered in Fort Mill, S.C., plans to have 1,600 people on the job in Sumter by 2021 when the plant reaches full capacity, producing 8 million tires a year.

Right now, there’s a skeleton crew reporting for work. The first employee, a civil engineer, was hired in April 2012. Baartman’s professional staff numbers 50 positions and another 18 multi-craft technician employees brought on board toward the end of 2012.

The technicians will spend about 12 weeks training for their jobs in Sumter at Continental tire plants in Mount Vernon, Ill., Germany, Portugal, France or Mexico.

While Continental plans to draw the vast majority of its workforce from the local area, six members of the plant’s professional staff are from Brazil, Germany, South Africa, France and Mexico.

Baartman, a native of South Africa where he worked for Continental, said the company brought in experienced personnel to tap their expertise in helping with the plant startup. The company plans to have 10 expatriates on board by the end of 2013.

“For the initial management team, we’ve had to bring in foreign, experienced people to get the show on the road,” Baartman said. “We believe there’s an advantage to have skill and training on hand.”

As far as the construction project, the daily workforce averages 350 to 400, said Tom Tompkins, Sumter plant engineering manager.

In the next couple of months, the construction workforce should peak at about 600 as mechanical and electrical subcontractors move in to begin prepping the plant for the installation of manufacturing equipment, Tompkins said.

The general contractor, Walbridge/Mashburn Joint Venture, and about a dozen subcontractors control hiring for the construction jobs, Continental officials said.

As work progresses, Baartman said engineers at Sumter are gleaning ideas from lessons learned in the construction of another plant in Russia.

The Continental facility in Kaluga, Russia — about 90 miles southwest of Moscow — shares the same blueprint and is about five months ahead the Sumter project, Baartman said.

Continental plans to begin production in 2014 and produce 800,000 units, and by 2015 production should climb to 2 million tires annually. Other milestones are:

  • In 2016, Continental expects to make 3 million tires in Sumter County.
  • By 2017, employment should reach 800 people.
  • By 2021, when phase one and phase two are complete, employment should hit 1,600, and annual output should reach 8 million tires.

Further expansion beyond 2021 will depend upon the progress of the initial operations, the economy and demand for tires, Baartman said.

“What is going to be happening in 10-20 years’ time is anyone’s guess,” Baartman said.

“I think the bottom line for us is that we got through 2012 successfully,” he said. “Every aspect of our plan is on time, we’ve recruited the people and the resources that are required.

“Our plan for 2013 is to do the same, but it will be another level of intensity involved in order for us to be able to produce tires in 2014.”

Columbia Regional Business Report editor James T. Hammond contributed to this report. Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-401-1094, ext. 204.