SCEDA Interview with Steve Dykes

October 29, 2020

By Brantley Strickland
Senior Project Manager, SouthernCarolina Alliance

1.    [Brantley Strickland] It seems with the recent news of Boeing moving its 787 Dreamliner production to Charleston, the market continues to draw Blue Chip companies. What has made Charleston so attractive to those types of customers in recent years?

[Steve Dykes] Many things have changed in Charleston over the past decade, as we became a major U.S. metro. In part, success breeds success and the evidence lies in the number of accolades that have come our way from renowned business publications. When Boeing chose Charleston in 2009, many domestic and international executives became aware of our market and we received many visits in the immediate aftermath by these “curiosity seekers.“ Fast forward to 2015, we witnessed two more monumental announcements of automotive OEMs by Mercedes Benz Vans and Volvo. The conventional wisdom had been that we would never see an automotive OEM in the same market as Boeing. Yet, here were two! The presence of the Port here has always been a major regional driver, and SPA has recently been breaking cargo records on an annual basis. Entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Charleston, whether you are talking about IT start-ups or the newest craft brewery. SCRA, MUSC and others have pioneered in the creation of West Edge, a high-quality life sciences complex. Charleston has also distinguished itself internationally with our ever-growing visitor industry success throughout the past decade.

2.    [BS]  What can you tell us about the original Boeing project and how it landed in Charleston County?

[SD]  We were a “bridesmaid” for the first Boeing 787 assembly line project back in 2002. What I recall so well was a meeting at Secretary Bob Faith’s downtown office in Charleston, where a Boeing official lauded us for our effort and encouraged us to consider recruiting Dallas-based Vought Aircraft to the area. In my opinion, the Governor and the Commerce team had set the right tone in playing hard but losing graciously. We took up the challenge in 2004 and landed Vought (“Project Buffalo”), the mid and aft fuselage section supplier for the 787. When Boeing acquired the Charleston fuselage operation and brought it back “in-house,” it set the stage for consideration of Charleston for the 2nd 787 assembly line in 2008-9. The relationship of our Governor, General Assembly and local Charleston officials with the company was quite strong and it had been nurtured over several years. The state keeps promises and delivers results, and this commitment reaped big rewards with Boeing.

3.    [BS]  Would you say the project had a transformative effect on the region? If so, in what ways?

[SD]  Huge effects, and they are visible on so many fronts that it is hard to know where to begin. Most obviously, the company has invested multiple billions in the physical plant and other locations since 2009. They expanded in 2013, both at Final Assembly and by introducing new business units unrelated to the 787. We gained “centers of excellence” in engineering and information technology, as well as a propulsion center and an R&D facility. Many of these located at Palmetto Commerce Park, about nine miles north of the Final Assembly Center. The employment impact and payroll have had a profound impact, with the headcount topping 8,000 employees, at one point. The 787 Delivery Center has added an international feather to our cap, with foreign dignitaries, emissaries and airline officials constantly in-and-out of Charleston to “take the keys” on newly christened planes. The impact of Boeing has also been profoundly felt across the state in the area of philanthropy, as many schools, universities, non-profits and charities have partnered to become part of the Boeing ecosystem. The company has also made its mark environmentally, operating a “green” plant with zero waste to landfills, and helping local conservation groups acquire and place sensitive forest lands into perpetual easements.

4.   [BS]  Obviously, Charleston County and South Carolina have built a tremendous relationship with Boeing over the years. Do you think that factored into the company’s decision to consolidate 787 production in North Charleston?

[SD]  I believe it was a prime factor. Charleston County government, and specifically our department have been on a week-to-week basis with the company since 2009 through our BRE program. It’s not an easy task, with upwards of 10 different Boeing team leaders to keep up with. But we address any and every challenge we can help them with, and have been poised on those occasions where there was an opportunity for expansion. The same is true for our colleagues at the City of North Charleston. The City began its relationship with the company by locating a dozen building inspectors in mobile offices on the Final Assembly construction site on a seven-days a week basis in order to expedite the opening of that magnificent 1.2 million square foot complex. Mayor Keith Summey understands the importance of “speed-to-market,” and the city has continued this dedication to the company throughout the years. The state team has been magnificent throughout the years, spanning three governors. The General Assembly consistently supports Boeing, and with enthusiasm. The Commerce Department team has always shined, from the Bob Faith-era, through the Joe Taylor years, and certainly during the Bobby Hitt-era. Lastly, I think that there are three groups that don’t get enough credit. These include the Charleston-based workforce at Boeing, the business community and the general public. Boeing company officials on more than one occasion have commented on how blown away they are to have Boeing workers “shouted out” and applauded in public places. This particularly makes an impression on the transplants from Puget Sound. When they compare across other company locations, they are hard-pressed to think of any other locale that comes close to the support and good feelings they get here.

5.    [BS]  Any idea on the additional workforce needs the company will have in Charleston with the recent consolidation?

[SD]  The incredible news we just received is bittersweet from a timing perspective. The aviation industry is in a severe recession, which has become all the more exacerbated by the near-total cessation of worldwide flying brought on by COVID-19. Aviation consultants and industry experts predict anywhere from seven to 10 years for the industry to return to a healthy place, and most don’t see it ever getting back to pre-COVID levels. In response to this recession, Boeing cut production on the 787 from 14 planes per month to six per month system-wide. Even with these setbacks, we are confident that over the years we will again see the headcount tick upward, as well as welcoming some additional suppliers to Charleston to support what will now be the entire 787 production system.