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It’s been nearly a year since Kobelco Construction Machinery USA opened its Moore plant, and business has met or exceeded all expectations.
Production of construction excavators has increased from 44 last year to an expected 234 this year.
The Japan-based company opened its 156,000-square production facility and office building last June, starting with 53 employees.
There are now 63, and general manager Ralph Wabnitz said nine more will be hired by May. Kobelco expects to continue hiring and have 131 employees by next year and 159 by 2020, Wabnitz said.
Most of the jobs are certified welders, painters, warehouse and assembly workers.
“After now one year in production, we are very pleased with the startup and performance of the new plant,” Wabnitz said.
Hiroshi “Rocky” Morita, vice president of plant operations, said a program called ReadySC handles much of the legwork involved in the hiring process by reviewing job applications and condensing them to only those who are qualified for in-person interviews.
“They provide excellent support,” he said.
Morita credited the large pool of a highly skilled workforce here. When the last 10 new jobs were advertised, Kobelco received some 200 applications, he said.
ReadySC is part of the state technical college system that offers help to new businesses. In Kobelco’s case, Spartanburg Community College’s landing pad (Center for Business & Entrepreneurial Development - CBED) at its Duncan campus offered Kobelco space and help while its plant was being built.
“Our workforce will steadily increase over the next years to support our planned production volumes,” Wabnitz said.
The company makes hydraulic excavators, wheel loaders and road construction equipment. Generically, each item produced is called an excavator.
With annual production already on the rise, next year Kobelco is planning to build 764 excavators and by 2020 it expects to make 1,172 of them, a “very aggressive” growth in business, Wabnitz said.
So far, the company has launched three different models of excavators, and it is in the planning stages to launch its largest model, the SK500, which will begin production in the fall, he said.
Kobelco decided to invest $41 million in a Spartanburg facility to reduce the operational burden on its Hiroshima Itsukaichi factory in Japan and to speed up delivery of excavators to its North American customers. Sitting on 85 acres, there is room to grow in the future.
One reason Kobelco picked Spartanburg over nearly 50 other sites in the Southeast was its closeness to the Port of Charleston — about a four-hour drive — where it receives an average of two to five containers a week of parts from Asia, primarily Japan and China.
“The growth of international companies that utilize the port for both import of manufacturing process components and export of finished goods are important drivers of our continued growth,” SC Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome said at Kobelco’s announcement in January 2015.
The proximity to Interstates 26 and 85 was another factor in choosing the Spartanburg County site, Wabnitz said
At the Moore plant, parts are organized and assembled by production workers and welders, beginning with the excavator engines, cabs and frames. The completed frames are then matched with the completed tops, and then adjusted and tested for accuracy.
At one area, a worker adds all the fluids needed for the engine and hydraulics, at another area a worker tightens all the bolts in the cab.
Outside, a dirt area allows customers the chance to see an excavator in action.
Once a finished excavator has passed all tests, it is then moved to a storage building for shipment by truck to the Port at Charleston for transport to another country, or by truck to a U.S. location. John Deere in North Carolina and Caterpillar in Georgia are among its customers.
Most of the excavators weigh more than 20 tons.
Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt, who helped recruit Kobelco, recently met with top executives at the company’s headquarters in Japan during a business trip.
“I have been very impressed with their commitment and excitement about being here in Spartanburg, and that was evident when I visited their leadership group in Japan,” he said.
He called Kobelco “a valuable asset to Spartanburg County” and credited Carter Smith of the Economic Futures Group and County Administrator Katherine O’Neill for their support in meeting Kobelco’s needs.
“They have formed a great team here in Spartanburg, and they offer a very competitive salary and benefits package that has provided them with the ability to attract this awesome team,” Britt said.
“Kobelco is a company that values its associates, and it is plain to see when you walk through their facility. Number one is safety, and everything else is behind it. It is a beautiful, clean facility that is inviting, and one which we are proud to have on Highway 290, which is an area that has become our showpiece for the ‘New Spartanburg.’”