Three Hard-Won Lessons That Help Explain Belgian Industry Success…

Belgium is less than half the size of South Carolina.

In March, the annual SC Automotive Summit featured first-ever presentations by a foreign delegation, from 10 members of the Belgian automobile sector.  While not the industrial powerhouse of neighbors France, Germany and The Netherlands, Belgium still ranks in the top 20 nations for competitiveness — not bad for a country less than half the size of South Carolina.

The visiting Belgians are part of the Transport and Mobility Group of Agoria. With more than 1,700 members, Agoria is Belgium’s largest employers’ organization and trade association. Ward Vleegen, head of the visiting sector group, presented three big ideas worth remembering:

Focus on Productivity

Belgian labor costs are 50% higher than the US, and are exceeded only by Denmark and Norway in the 28-member European Union. They’re nearly twice as high as 15 of the EU countries and are the highest of all European auto-producing nations. The consequences of such high labor costs have been gut-wrenching at times, as with the 2014 closing of Ford’s plant in Genk, which at one time employed 4,300 people.

Ward Vleegen, Head of Belgium’s Transport and Mobility Club at Agoria

Vleegen asked the Auto Summit crowd how SC would compete if it faced competition among states as Belgium does among countries. Spain’s labor costs are 45% less than Belgium’s—comparable to Wisconsin’s; and Poland’s are 90% less – comparable to New Mexico, Vleegen said.

And  yet…

Belgium has in some ways made lemons into lemonade. Showing once again that necessity is the mother of invention, the need in Belgium to keep labor costs under control has led to a burst of productivity. In fact, according to the European Union’s statistical office,  Belgian productivity  is the highest in Europe, and about 14% higher than its nearest rival and neighbor, The Netherlands.

How’s that happening? I’m glad you asked….

Belgian Startups Focus on Business-to-Business Opportunity

According to Vleegen, 92% of Belgian startups focus on the B2B sector, compared to 61% in  Europe as a whole. “That means we have a very business-oriented startup community,” he says. And Manufacturing is the second-most targeted sector for Belgian startups, behind Health Care. In Europe overall, Manufacturing ranks as the 6th most-targeted sector.

Vleegen’s analysis? This shows that Belgium is “a  breeding area for innovations in manufacturing.”

According to the SC Manufacturer’s Alliance, manufacturing accounts for 12% of the state’s workforce and 20% of its GDP.  Moreover,  South Carolina’s average manufacturing wage has risen about 30% faster than the national average since 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Making that industry more productive and competitive could have a big positive impact on South Carolina.

And — counterintuitively — more efficient manufacturers don’t  necessarily mean less manufacturing jobs.

Efficient Manufacturers Create Jobs

Since 2015, Agoria and Sirris — a Belgian technology collaborative — have sponsored a “Factories of the Future” award based on their “Made Different” manufacturing transition plan. The honor is presented to companies which — according to Agoria — “excel in how they handle energy and materials”, and which have “creative, involved workers use smart, sustainable production processes in state-of-the-art facilities. The result: an agile, future-proof business that manufactures products with high added value.”

The trade association has tracked these innovative and efficient companies and found that they’re actually  increasing the number of jobs. While employment overall in the sector fell about 5% since 2012, the 16 companies winning the “Factories of the Future” award saw an 11% increase in employees.

The result, says Vleegen, is that Belgium is showing that human-centered, efficient production is viable and sustainable.

Samsung Partners with SC Universities for New Plant

Samsung will partner with Clemson University and the University of South Carolina for a five-year effort to make better home appliances, the company announced.

“Samsung’s ambition is for South Carolina to become our U.S. hub for every stage in the home appliance lifecycle,” said Dochul Choi, Samsung’s Electronic America senior vice president of research and development.

Choi said that includes “from concept and R&D to manufacturing, quality assurance, distribution and customer care.”

The venture is detailed in a report by The Greenville News.

$380 Million Manufacturing Investment


The partnership comes as Samsung prepares to start producing washers next year at its plant in Newberry, SC.  The company says that the facility – a $380 million investment – should have 1,000 employees by 2020.

Selling South Carolina Abroad

Ever wonder how the State of South Carolina sells itself overseas?

SC Connect took a look at the state Department of Agriculture’s efforts at the ANUGA trade show in Cologne recently. Jack Shuler and Clint Leach of the agriculture department spent hours meeting with companies and extolling the virtues of the state. They were in the midst of nearly 100,000  businessmen during the five-day event.

How’s SC Doing?

How’d they do? You can decide for yourself. Take a look at our article, “Growing SC Agribusiness is a Worldwide Endeavor,” in the Winter edition of SCBiz Magazine. Here’s a taste;

South Carolina agriculture representatives contended with more than 100,000 other businessmen to press the case for SC agribusiness this month in Cologne at one of the world’s largest food and beverage trade shows.

“We’re just trying to get people to know South Carolina, get them to know what we have to offer,” said Jack Shuler, director of agribusiness development at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. Perched on a stool beside him at one of the 7,200 different display booths sat Clint Leach, assistant state agriculture commissioner. South Carolina’s not generally a high-profile state, Shuler said, “but this time they know us.”

To read the entire article, go to page 36 here, in the Winter 2017 issue of SCBiz magazine.

Belgium Launches “Impact Bond” to Private Investors for Developing Countries

Belgium promoted this week a new Humanitarian Impact Bond that the nation has been developing in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

As reported by,  private investors will invest in three new physical rehabilitation centers to be built in Africa over five years. The private investments are intended to encourage efficiency and good management, so that projects will be sustainable over time. If the developments meet all their management targets, investors could receive a 7% return on their capital. If they do not reach the targets, investors will receive 70% back, including a 10% penalty paid by the ICRC.

“This is the first time in the humanitarian world that we have built a system where we say we want to pay for the results that we get,” said Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s Minister for Development Cooperation.

Croo said that “important not to create an environment in which profits go to private companies, and losses are borne by the public sector,” reported

For the full report, click here.

$15 Billion Order for SC-Made Boeing 787-10s

Emirates Airlines announced recently that it will buy 40 new Boeing 787-10 airplanes. Built exclusively at Boeing’s plant in Charleston, SC, the planes are valued at more than $15 billion.

The order, reported at AviationDaily online  and the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, comes four years after Emirates cancelled an order for 70 Airbus A350s and began a new decision process.

“The Emirates deal brings the total order book for the 787-10 to 217 airplanes,” the Post and Courier reports. “Emirates also is the world’s largest Boeing 777 operator, with 165 in service.”

Photo provided by Boeing


Record Business at Port of Charleston

South Carolina’s Port of Charleston continues record-setting growth in 2017, according to a story this week in the Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston.

Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome predicts continued growth into the new year, driven in part by Samsung, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. All have plants coming online next year.

Charleston’s closest competitor, the Port of Savannah in Georgia, is also growing. Officials there credit the recent widening of the Panama Canal for their continued success.

Upstate SC and Belgium’s Agoria: Driven to Grow

The Upstate SC Alliance wanted

to encourage new international investors.



Belgium’s Transport and Mobility Group wanted

to bring value to its members.




SC Connect brought the two together.


As 2016 drew to a close, the Upstate SC Alliance was reflecting on its growth, and considering how to build upon it in 2017.

For the past decade, the economic development group representing 10 counties and about 1.5 million people had averaged more than $1 billion in new foreign direct investment each year. Home to BMW’s largest manufacturing facility and the North American headquarters of Michelin, the Alliance and its leaders sought to attract new international companies.

Jacob Hickman, Business Development Manager, Upstate SC Alliance

“The idea was to focus on certain geographies where we haven’t spent a lot of time and energy in the past. We really wanted to invest in new markets and build new strong long-term relationships,” said Jacob Hickman, the Alliance’s director of business development.

For help, the Upstate SC Alliance turned to SC Connect.

“SC Connect is able to align the Upstate SC Alliance with potential new investment opportunities, through direct interaction with companies and industry associations,” Hickman said. “They truly understand the dynamics of the Belgium market and where the best synergies reside.”

In preparation for a summer trip by Alliance representatives, SC Connect focused on matching growing Belgian companies with the Upstate’s target sectors – advanced materials, aerospace, automotive, bioscience and energy.

At about the same time, AGORIA – Belgium’s largest employer and trade association – had created a new focus group on transport and mobility. Determined to be more than a network, the new group developed a strong mission-focused vision to increase business, particularly in the United States.

SC Connect met with the group’s leader, who was cautious at first. But over time, the group warmed to the idea and hosted a meeting between members of the group and the Upstate Alliance during the Belgian visit in June.

Building A Business Partnership

Gathering at the transport group’s modern offices in downtown Brussels, Hickman and Upstate representatives outlined the scope and depth of South Carolina’s automotive industry, and the opportunities for Belgian ingenuity.

Both groups left feeling that partnerships were possible.

Through the summer of 2017, the Upstate SC Alliance, AGORIA’s Transport and Mobility Club and SC Connect worked to connect the Belgian group to the South Carolina automotive sector.

As a result, Belgian industry representatives will travel to the SC Automotive Council’s annual conference in 2018 and present to state  leaders on agile manufacturing, one of the group’s specialties.

“The success of that trip was first, getting a good understanding of the genetic makeup of Belgium,” says Hickman. “And, second, we’re going to have a delegation from the Belgian mobility sector coming in February, so Belgian companies will be interacting with South Carolina companies.”

“You’re not always going to get projects out of trips like that,” he said. “But now that there are boots on the ground in the form of SC Connect, there’s a connectivity that hasn’t been there before.”

World’s Largest Wind Turbine to Be Tested in South Carolina

Clemson University will receive more than $23 million to test the world’s largest wind turbine, the creation of Danish company MHI Vestas, the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper reported.

Testing is expected to occur next year on the turbine, which can power up to 8,000 homes, the paper reported.

The turbine is part of Clemson’s wind -turbine research facility dedicated in late 2013. The 82,000 square foot facility’s mission is to help create the next generation of wind technologies and reduce energy costs.

New SC Inland Port Getting Increased Rail Service

The new inland port slated for Dillon, SC will have five-day/week service, instead of the originally planned two-three day/ week service, authorities said.

“Forest products and agriculture products are both target export commodities for the facility,” a state ports authority spokesman said.

According to Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier:

The Dillon facility will handle about 45,000 containers in its initial full year of operations, with the SPA hoping to boost capacity to 220,000 cargo boxes annually as the area attracts new distribution centers and manufacturers. The Upstate facility, by comparison, handled 121,761 containers in fiscal 2017, which ended June 30.

To read the full article, click here.