By Billy Liggett and Gordon Anderson
Of the nearly 460 jobs aluminum forging manufacturer Bharat Forge is expected to create in Lee County over the next five years, 15 have already arrived as the mammoth warehouse near the Colon community begins to take shape.
Courtney Holcomb is one of the 15, and as human resources manager, she’ll have a hand in filling those other 445 positions, expected to pay an average of $47,000-plus a year (about $6,000 higher than the average local salary, and considerably higher than the average skilled labor salary in North Carolina).
Looking out at the mostly empty metal building (filled only with construction crews at the moment), Holcomb — donning the required hard hat, mask, safety vest and steel-toed shoes on an abnormally warm late-October afternoon — can see the future.
That future comes in the form of four companies who in a span of nine months (from August 2019 to May 2020) announced Sanford as their choice to invest millions on new sites or expansions.
- Bharat Forge: 460 jobs and a $171 million investment.
- Audentes Therapeutics: 209 jobs and a $109 million investment.
- Pfizer’s gene therapy expansion: 300 jobs and a $500 million investment.
- Through6: 160 jobs and a $2 million investment.
The four companies were named among the Top 25 in Business North Carolina Magazine’s annual list of the state’s “biggest job creators” for 2020. That’s 16 percent of the list located in the state’s 46th most-populous county (by comparison, Mecklenburg is home to just two of the companies, and Wake has three).
When the dust settles and the four companies are running at full steam, Lee County will have 1,129 new well- to high-paying jobs and a total investment of $782 million. For an area that struggled during and after the Great Recession of the early 2000s — the local textile, furniture and tobacco industries were hit particularly hard — Sanford and Lee County are well positioned to not only survive the current economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but thrive.
“It’s unusual to have a [year] like we’ve had,” says Bob Joyce of the Sanford Area Growth Alliance (SAGA), who on Oct. 27 was named North Carolina Economic Developer of the Year by the N.C. Economic Developers Association. “We’ve worked hard to prepare our product [for new businesses]. We have land, infrastructure, water, sewer, electric, natural gas and telecommunication assets. We have education and workforce development systems working together.
“We are built for success.”
Courtney Holcomb has seen the future. Two weeks into her job at Bharat Forge, the company flew her to Germany to see its facility there — the one Sanford’s site is being modeled after. The previous week, she visited the company’s headquarters in Pune, India.
The company wanted her to “witness the quality” firsthand and understand the company’s culture. A native of Sanford, Holcomb became one of the first 15 hires at Bharat Forge because the company wanted somebody who knows Sanford to help introduce others to Sanford. She can also appreciate what companies like Bharat Forge will mean to her hometown.
“It’s going to make a huge impact,” she says. “I was impressed with what I saw in Germany and India. “The skilled labor — the machine operators, the robotics, the engineers — we’re going to have all of that here.”
THE BIG 4 | BHARAT FORGE
Bharat Forge is India’s largest automotive forging company, manufacturing and exporting automotive components and leading chassis component manufacturer in the world.
The Sanford manufacturing facility will utilize fully automated forging and machining processes to produce lightweight aluminum products for the company’s automotive sector — the products consist of steering components for most of the world’s major automotive manufacturers.
With plants in India, France, Sweden and Germany, Bharat Forge also works in aerospace, railway, marine, oil and gas, power, construction and mining industries. Its plant in Sanford is its biggest overseas investment in North America.
According to Glen Hawkins, general manager and plant manager in Sanford, the new facility will be complete in the first quarter of 2021, though work on forging parts manually will begin as early as December (going fully automated by April). Raw materials will arrive from Germany until Sanford’s own casting process (making billets out of prime aluminum and alloys) is placed into operation next October.
The new facility is just the first phase of a large-scale manufacturing complex that could be completed within five years. When Bharat Forge is fully operational in Sanford, it will employ at least 460 people, most of them skilled laborers, with the average salary slightly above $47,000 a year.
Hawkins said a number of factors went into the company’s decision to come to Sanford, chief among them a well-established logistical corridor (U.S. 1), proximity to its customers on the East Coast and a “very strong” pool of tech and engineering talent from the Research Triangle.
“With all that said, it was the really great feeling that our senior leadership felt when they visited Sanford and the future site [that sealed the deal],” Hawkins said. “Of course, COVID-19 has all of the United States guessing on the future, but the managing committee of Bharat Forge has a very defined growth strategy to develop new markets and expand our business. Our focus on organic growth, developing new processes, expanding the product portfolio and leveraging our innovation capabilities will allow us to benefit from economies of scale and lower average costs.”
Hawkins also commended the city and county’s “proactive approach” in economic development and North Carolina’s incentive structure.
That incentive came in the form of a Job Development Investment Grant, approved by the state’s Economic Investment Committee. Over the course of the next 12 years, Bharat forge will add an estimated $787 million to North Carolina’s economy. Using a formula that takes into account the new tax revenues generated by the new jobs, the grant will potentially reimburse Bharat Forge up to $3.5 million in that 12-year span.
Economics aside, Hawkins says Bharat Forge will act as a “responsible corporate citizen,” one that reciprocates and gives back to the community it calls home.
“We are committed to initiatives in areas such as education, environment, infrastructure and community, along with charitable institutes engaged in education and in uplifting quality of lives of the disadvantaged and needy,” Hawkins said. “We will give back through sponsorships of youth and adult programs, buying local pro bono services and volunteer days for team members and a company match.”
THE BIG 4 | PFIZER GENE THERAPY
There have been ups and downs for drug manufacturing giant Pfizer since its $68 billion purchase of Wyeth and its Sanford facility in 2009. The acquisition led to downsizing and layoffs over the following five years — plans initially called for the elimination of 400 jobs by 2015.
Today, the company is talking expansion, and that expansion is huge news for Sanford.
Just over a year ago, Pfizer announced a half-billion dollar investment for the construction of its state-of-the-art gene therapy manufacturing facility on its 230-acre campus in Sanford. The facility — currently under construction — is anticipated to support Pfizer’s continuing investment in gene therapy research and development, similar to Pfizer’s other North Carolina research and development sites in Chapel Hill and Kit Creek.
The expansion will add 300 new jobs to its 650-person Sanford workforce.
In addition to its gene therapy operations, Pfizer’s Sanford facility also manufactures components for the company’s vaccine portfolio, including Prevnar 13 and several vaccines currently in Pfizer’s research pipeline. Jobs range from manufacturing technicians who are specially trained to physically make the product and meticulously document results, engineers and maintenance technicians who will perform preventative maintenance on equipment and troubleshoot when things go wrong, quality control specialists who test raw materials used in production as well as the end product, and more.
These jobs will call for a mixture of education levels, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, biology or chemistry, as well as associate’s degrees in fields like biomanufacturing. In other words, there’s opportunity for well-paying jobs for a lot of people.
And leaders in Sanford are hoping many of those people are homegrown.
In May of this year, Central Carolina Community College announced new Biopress Technology and BioWork Programming programs to answer the need for trained workers in these fields. The curriculums are designed to prepare men and women to work as process operators in biological products manufacturing facilities.
CCCC President Lisa Chapman said Pfizer’s announcement — and Audentes Therapeutics’ announcement that followed — means there should be plenty of jobs available to locals who are interested.
“CCCC is an integral partner in economic development,” she said. “We know that our role in addressing talent pipeline demand is increasingly more critical, as there is an increasing need for postsecondary credentials for today’s and tomorrow’s labor force.”
“The college will continue working closely with Pfizer and all of our workforce partners to address the industry needs as well as to support the economic mobility of our local citizens. We want to keep and attract community-engaged employers, such as Pfizer, and ensure that individuals in our communities are sufficiently prepared to earn family-sustaining wages.”
Once considered the “Brick City” because of its abundance of brick manufacturing plants, Sanford is well on its way to a more lucrative title, “Home to Gene Therapy.”
Sanford Area Growth Alliance CEO Jimmy Randolph says Pfizer’s decision to expand in Sanford will have reverberations throughout the life sciences industry.
“When (life science industries) see a company like Pfizer making an investment in a community like Sanford, that gets their attention,” he said. “If the talent pool is in place, then we become a viable location for this industry.”
Case in point: Audentes Therapeutics (more on them later). Also included in Business North Carolina Magazine’s Top 25 job creator list, Audentes is investing $200 million and creating more than 100 jobs in Sanford just up the road from Pfizer along U.S. 1.
Randolph also said these decisions have lasting impacts on a community, and not just in the workforce or economic sense.
“I’ve already seen some of it,” he said. “Just being out with the family, being downtown and going into shops or places like Hugger Mugger, we’re meeting people who are relatively new to Sanford, but they’ve already become involved and are offering their ideas on what we can do to keep making downtown better. Any time you diversify in this way, you’re going to have that kind of impact.”
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann calls the estimated 8 percent bump in Lee County’s tax base that Pfizer will provide an “incredible number” and says that goes up to 12 if you include Bharat Forge.
“Adding those kinds of numbers to a tax base in such a short period of time is like turning a battleship around,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen that fast — but it did here. For most, that kind of jump in a single year would be a fantasy.”
He calls gene therapy science “the future” and says Sanford is now home to that future.
“This industry is known to cluster and just the existence of a facility like this has the potential to draw in other life science companies,” he said. “We’ve already seen evidence of this through the project requests that have come into SAGA since Pfizer’s announcement.”
THE BIG 4 | AUDENTES THERAPEUTICS
Pfizer’s big announcement in 2019 opened the doors for 2020’s big gene therapy addition: Audentes Therapeutics.
Audentes is a leading genetic medicines company focused on developing and commercializing innovative products for serious rare neuromuscular diseases. According to Don Mather, executive director, manufacturing and operations site head, the new facility in Sanford is being built to support the next phase of Audentes’ growth as it establishes a “robust, global supply chain” and expands its therapeutic and geographic scope as part of the pharmaceutical giant, Astellas Pharma Inc.
The Sanford site is intended to be a fully integrated manufacturing site including administrative and support staff, supply chain and materials management, manufacturing, process engineering, quality assurance, quality control and validation, according to Mather.
“The employees at this facility will help develop and ultimately deliver our important genetic medicines to patients as rapidly as possible,” he says. ‘This team will receive raw materials, perform cell culture, purification, filling and testing to support production and release of our genetic medicines.”
The 200-plus jobs coming to Audentes will be high-paying jobs — many in the six-figure range.
The announcement in February — which drew several state leaders, including Gov. Roy Cooper — touted the expected economic impact on Sanford and the Research Triangle. Moreso, those in attendance were more excited about Sanford’s suddenly growing gene therapy industry. Whereas Pfizer’s expansion laid the foundation in 2019, Audentes’ announcement confirmed that something special is emerging in this somewhat rural county 40 miles south of Raleigh.
“North Carolina is a center for the life sciences. Companies across the globe are looking at North Carolina, and we’re rivaling Cambridge and San Francisco and other places,” Gov. Cooper said in February. “This company wanted a skilled workforce. They knew we had amazing research institutions and the best community college system to provide the talent.”
“One of the things we do well is we build great teams – and what a great team we have that put this together today,” Sanford Mayor Chet Mann said during the announcement. “[Audentes’] presence here will transform our workforce and lift them up. Today we now have the two greatest gene therapy companies in the world, right here where we stand.”
Audentes Senior Vice President Don Wuchterl said the company’s journey began in 2019 when it exceeded its capacity at its San Francisco headquarters.
“We followed several criteria. One of them was access to a skilled and talented workforce,” Wuchterl said. ‘We were looking for a community with an established life science presence, and this area is incredible for that. We also didn’t want to take employees from existing businesses — we wanted to build our own base over time.”
Audentes will be visible to all southbound travelers coming from Wake County on U.S. 1. Located at the intersection of that major highway and Colon Road, the site will be directly across from the Galvin’s Ridge subdivision, which will feature nearly 1,000 new homes and commercial buildings as well. Other commercial sites have begun construction along Enterprise Park Drive near Audentes, and the Bharat Forge site — another 460 new jobs — is going up barely a mile away along Colon Road.
Construction at Audentes began earlier this year, and according to Mather, they are on schedule to be mechanically complete and receive its certificate of occupancy this time next year.
“At that point, we will be able to routinely occupy the building,” he says. “In the interim the project team is working out of temporary construction trailers onsite.”
The Sanford location is strategic, says Mather, because of its proximity to RTP. But while Audentes could have chosen a number of nearby communities in the Raleigh-Durham area, Sanford stuck out, he says, for a number of reasons.
“The facility we toured and eventually purchased in the Central Carolina Enterprise Park checked off most of our boxes for the base building,” he says. “During our brief visits, we really got a sense of the hospitality and good nature here in Sanford. Not to mention that Sanford was identified as a great place to do business. One of the intangibles we were looking for in a new site was a place where our employees and Audentes would become a fixture in a community. We found that here in Sanford.”
The North Carolina Department of Commerce and specifically the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina helped Audentes navigate state, county and local incentive processes. Mather says Mann and representatives from SAGA also “set the bar high for the other communities we visited.”
“While there were many variables in our final site decision, these initial interactions with local leadership played a role in the company’s decision,” he says, adding that state and local leaders understood the importance of companies like theirs for the lifesaving work they perform and for the specialized jobs they bring to the community.
“Additionally, making gene therapies is a highly technical and complicated process so we needed to locate our facility near a highly skilled workforce,” he adds. “The location lets us tap into top research institutions such as Duke University, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, and others, for the expertise required for such specialized operations.”
Life Bharat Forge and Pfizer, Mather says Audentes will be committed to giving back to the community it calls home. He says the will recruit locally and connect with and engage with local schools and career placement programs for internships and apprenticeships.
“As part of this, we have already partnered with Central Carolina Community College to support the NC BioBetter program: Accelerating Pathways for Rapid and Sustainable Growth in the Biopharmaceutical Workforce Pipeline,” Mather says. “Audentes intends to be a long-term fixture in the Sanford area. So, we expect to see our employees become active in the community as we grow.”
THE BIG 4 | THROUGH6
California-based apparel manufacturer Through6 announcement back in May that it would open a new production facility in Lee County was the fourth such announcement by a major company in less than a year.
Since then, despite some challenges with getting the operation up and running that were caused by issues unique to the building at 908 J.R. Industrial Drive, the company has made great strides in expanding its operation into Lee County and North Carolina.
“We had some setbacks and we’re not as far as we’d like to be, but now we’re hitting the ground running to really kind of drum up these job and be aggressive with our hiring process,” said Paul Goncalves, one of the company’s founders and its chief manufacturing officer.
Goncalves said the initial group of new employees numbered about a dozen, mostly in the form of mechanics and others who could help with the physical setup. But he said the company expects to bring on 50 or more new employees in November and December, with a total goal of 160 jobs and a $2 million investment in the local tax base.
“A large portion of our business comes in November and December, so we are expecting to be fully operational by mid-November,” he explained. “A large part of our early hires have been sewing operators, which is a really skilled, finite profile. But now we’re also looking for people to work in fulfillment, shipping, as operators, so our net is expanding.”
Through6 was founded in Garden Grove, California in 2014. The company was drawn to North Carolina in part because of the need for an east coast presence, but also because of the state’s history with the textile industry.
And although it’s a much different-looking business than others which announced Lee County expansions in 2019 and 2020, the excitement from local economic developers wasn’t any different.
SAGA CEO Jimmy Randolph calls the addition of Through6 a “big deal.”
“And the fact that we were able to attract them with no incentives … the idea that this community can attract an industry of this size and this calibert on the merits of the work force, the quality of life and the training resources we’re able to offer — it’s encouraging moving forward,” Randolph says. “It’s a good example that we can point to when trying to sell Sanford to others on merit alone.”
“We are proud … that a well-established California-based company recognizes the strategic advantages of siting their first East Coast expansion in Sanford,” adds former SAGA Chairman Kirk Bradley. “Through6’s unique business model represents the future of apparel manufacturing, and we are excited to add them to the ever-growing list of manufacturers who call Sanford and Lee County home.”
In addition to the wins on tax base investment and jobs, economic development leaders also hailed the project as a victory for Lee County because in addition to the company occupying a building that had been vacant for some time, the expansion occurred without any economic incentives from the county or the state.
Listen to our Friends of The Rant podcasts with SAGA executives Jimmy Randolph and Bob Joyce to hear them talk more about the industries coming to Sanford and Lee County. Find them at rantnc.com.