The Charlotte Observer

July 9, 1995

Landing AMP Took Secrecy, Salesmanship
How County Closed Deal of Decade

Greg Barrett, Staff Writer

Copyright © 1995, The Charlotte Observer

ROCK HILL, S.C. One cold, gusting, overcast day in February 1994, York County Economic Development director Mark Farris drove to a designated spot on I-77 in Rock Hill.

A rendezvous with a half dozen Fortune 500 executives was set for early afternoon. Farris didn't know what company he was about to meet and he knew not to ask.

Budding negotiations over a new location for a company were hushed, the state was eager to impress, York County stood to profit.

That's all Farris needed to know.

``We ended up having two visits from the company before we knew who they were,'' Farris says now. ``That's typical. . . . A private company doesn't want the competition to know what they're doing.''

Executives from AMP Inc. arrived that blustery first day driving a rental van, fresh from a flight from Pennsylvania on a corporate plane. They wore nice suits, carried firm handshakes, remained straight-face serious and asked questions rapid fire.

Farris told them about the county's skilled labor force and robust economy, all the while fretting about that day's weather. ``We market ourselves as having a wonderful climate,'' he recalls. ``It was close to freezing. It throws a pall really on the whole trip.''

But AMP representatives' conversation cut quickly to business: The company needed 50 acres with easy access to I-77, a quick route to Charlotte and to the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, and it needed an abundant and skilled work force.

No problem, Farris told them. York County wanted in the game. The stakes could mean 500 jobs to start, as many as 1,000 down the road. He shuttled the executives to several prime sites along I-77, all less than $2 of unleaded from the big city. He then ushered them to York Technical College's Baxter Hood Center, where special schools manager Larry Lindsey made his pitch, promising the Harrisburg, Pa., electronics firm customized training for the new jobs.

With that first day, Farris launched an exhausting 16-month sales job, complete with lunches, dinners, politicians galore, pick-up basketball, countless phone calls, late-night meetings, flights north and south. AMP's choice eventually boiled down to Cabarrus County, just north of Charlotte, and York County, just south of Charlotte.

``Our initial thought was that North Carolina would probably be our ultimate site,'' says AMP tax manager Tom Bowen. ``We were already in five counties in North Carolina, and it has always been a positive experience.

``But we tried to keep an open mind as much as possible.''

In the end, South Carolina changed law to accommodate AMP, and everyone from the governor to legislators to the county council played a hand in landing the largest industrial investment for York County in more than a decade.

AMP will spend about $10 million when it begins construction early next year on the first phase of its new plant at I-77 and Porter Road. It plans to open in 1997 a 100,000-square-foot factory that will produce electrical connectors made mostly for the computer industry. The company plans to add 100,000 square feet to the plant by the year 2000.

``I knew it was big,'' Farris says, reflecting on that anonymous first meeting. ``I didn't know how big.''

* * *

Renee Oswald rose at 3 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, boarded a state-owned twin-engine plane and flew 2-1/2 hours from Columbia to Harrisburg, Pa.

This would become one of the most important days in her 14-year career as a senior project manager for the S.C. Department of Commerce.

It was her job to bring AMP, state, county and York Tech officials together in one room for a pivitol meeting. On this day, it was at Rock Hill's Baxter Hood Center. In short, ``I put the right players together and let them come to an agreement,'' she says.

Oswald returned with an AMP entourage, and Farris picked them up at the airport. He ferried them to Porter Road, where he painted a mental picture of a factory teeming with business.

York County Council Chairman Carl Gullick, meanwhile, had scheduled a lunch appointment with Farris at the Baxter Hood Center. He knew only that a major company had come to scout the county.

``I was told to get there early,'' Gullick says. He arrived at 11 a.m., well aware of recruiting strategies: Make the executives feel comfortable, but make sure small talk reflects on York County.

``You don't want to talk about last week's PGA tournament,'' Gullick says. ``Talk about what you did last weekend with your children on the Catawba River, or at Cherry Park.''

There was a casual lunch, and plenty of presentations for AMP executives to chew on. An official from S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spoke about state permitting. Someone from labor and resources talked about workers and wages and how a 30-mile radius surrounding York County stretches across an invisible state border. There was a presentation on technical training and education, and the department of commerce highlighted some tax incentives available for industry.

The visiting executives then rose to speak. To most everyone's surprise, they identified their company and passed out their annual report.

``I was very impressed that they did that. I had not told anyone who they were, only that they were a good company,'' Oswald says. ``With that announcement . . . it gave everyone the feeling that this was a totally legitimate site search.''

* * *

Gullick placed AMP's annual report in his den, where in days to come he routinely pondered what might be.

AMP has a clean environmental record, good labor relations, and recorded $4.03 billion in sales last year.

``This is one we really want,'' Gullick recalls thinking. ``It's one quality outfit.''

The deal offered by South Carolina and York County began to quietly take shape after the Nov. 17 luncheon. Gullick routinely updated the county council in closed session, and Farris stayed in touch with state and AMP officials.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, about eight AMP executives flew back to the Carolinas and met at the Lamplighter restaurant in Charlotte with Gullick, Farris and several other state and county officials.

That evening's conversation split into two groups, one talking about education and the work force, the other expounding on tax incentives offered to industry. By midnight, Gullick, a calculator in hand, began to sense York County was moving ahead in its race with Cabarrus.

``When I left there that night, I felt good about our chances,'' he says. ``The responses we were getting seemed positive.''

AMP's Bowen says, ``My first impression was these people have their act together.''

The next day, Farris played pick-up basketball with AMP officials in a gym at a Charlotte church. The pace was fast and aggressive. ``They work hard,'' Farris says, ``and they play hard.''

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, Farris and Gullick traveled to Columbia, where they met with more AMP executives at the Department of Commerce building on Main Street. For 1-1/2 hours they hammered out the county's part of the deal, which includes allowing AMP to negotiate a property tax payment that could be as much as 4.5 percent less than the usual 10.5 percent assessment.

Leaving the meeting, Gullick stepped off the elevator the same time that Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, and Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, stepped on. ``We were double-teaming them at this point,'' Gullick recalls grinning.

Hayes and Simrill helped calm AMP concerns over an unusual S.C. levy taxing a company's logo or patent. Bowen now refuses to say how much it would have cost AMP, but says, ``Worst case scenario, it could be very detrimental.''

At the same time AMP was meeting Hayes and Simrill, the Ways and Means Committee was writing new legislation on an ``enterprise zone,'' which gives specific tax breaks and other financial incentives to companies locating in industrial areas deemed economically depressed.

Simrill and Hayes received updated faxes from Ways and Means as they walked into their meeting with AMP and as they walked out. The enterprise zone, tailored for AMP, eventually included a 5-year reprieve on the logo tax.

``We made the legislation where it would specifically address AMP,'' Simrill says. ``It was being formulated right then. . . . I think the officials at AMP were impressed we were willing to go that extra mile.''

Gov. David Beasley met with AMP representatives the following day and assured them he would push for the new legislation. Within weeks, legislators approved the enterprise zone.

Now it was up to AMP.

``In this case, I felt the state of South Carolina - from Beasley down to the legislators down to the York County Council - we had all done everything we could do,'' Oswald says. ``Win or lose, I didn't feel there was anything we could've done differently that would've made a difference.''

AMP's decision was long in coming. Farris, Oswald and Gullick had hoped to hear something in March, then in April. Finally, Farris asked U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-Rock Hill, to make a call to Harrisburg.

``I simply made my spiel, my speech,'' Spratt says. ``It had come down to a very close race. You want the local leaders to let them know we're interested.''

The decision came June 28.

Farris was out of town at an economic retreat when his cellular phone buzzed. He pulled off to the side of the road to take the call. He was told AMP was York County's. He kissed his wife, Erin, and their infant son, Cade. He later called it his biggest coup during eight years as economic development director.

Oswald, meanwhile, was in an undisclosed northwest part of the state, scouting sites for another anonymous industry recruit. She also was reached by cellular phone as she drove along I-85 in her state-issued Buick.

She whooped with joy. A vice president from the anonymous company was sitting in her passenger seat.

``I'm glad to see you like your job,'' he said grinning.

Oswald says now, ``I love my job. . . . This is probably the best deal I've worked in ten years. We involved a lot of people, and it's good to know all that effort wasn't in vain.''

Used with permission.
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Copyright ©1995, The Charlotte Observer.

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