In some respects, one cannot imagine a much odder marriage than a Communist government-owned, Chinese multinational manufacturer and a 230-year-old, Southern U.S. horse-racing community. But two such parties have joined forces in South Carolina and, by all accounts, are happy with the arrangement.
The city of Camden, population about 6,000, welcomed Haier Group, a 30,000-employee appliance maker based in Qingdao, China, as a new corporate citizen three years ago. As foreign competition has shredded some of South Carolina's traditional textiles and apparel manufacturing base, the state has diversified economically. It has worked hard to recruit international companies to the area, particularly in sectors such as automotive and electronics.
Nelson Lindsay, director of the Kershaw County Economic Development Office, said the first contact with Haier Group occurred in November 1998, and by April 1999 the Chinese company had agreed to set up shop in Camden. He said Haier was offered the usual sorts of incentives, such as property-tax breaks, but nothing extraordinary.
With so many Americans pointing an accusatory finger at China as one of the roots of this country's current economic ills, it might be understandable if a community failed to roll out the welcome mat warmly to a firm such as Haier. But that has not been the case, local officials said.
``They're coming over here and creating jobs for our citizens,'' Lindsay said in a telephone interview. ``And they're trying to become part of our community,'' by giving to local charities and participating in regional dinners, golf outings and the like.
``I've never run into any clash here,'' Allan Guberski, vice president and general manager of Haier America, said in a recent interview at the Camden plant. He added that Haier pays above-average wages for the area - about $10 an hour, on average - plus benefits, and that the community has provided a superb work force.
``The people here are creme de la creme.'' The 230-person factory typically has only a half-dozen or so Chinese employees at any one time, including Jinmin Zhang, Camden-based president of Haier America Refrigerator Co.
``I treat him as the business owner; I'm the help,'' said Guberski. Mandarin-speaking Zachary Wong, for example, handles the import of materials and parts from China. But the vast majority are local folks who are glad to have a job.
Still, the sharp difference in cultures meant a learning curve for all involved, especially in the plant's early days in 2000.
``The management style in China is a little different,'' said Guberski. ``It's more of a parent-child relationship than the business relationship you have here. That was part of the growing pains here initially.''
Lindsay suggested that the challenge for the Chinese management was not only adapting to American workers, but to Southern workers. ``On opening day of deer-hunting season, you may not have your entire work force there,'' he said. But both sides appear to have adapted.
``Overall, it's been a very positive experience,'' Lindsay said. ``I've enjoyed working with them.''
``They've integrated into the Southern community very well,'' according to C. Grant Jackson, business editor of The State newspaper, who has interviewed Haier's Chinese leaders and closely covered the company's move into the area. ``The American workers there like their jobs,'' he said, noting that Haier's flat management structure has contributed to employees feeling their voices are heard.
And Haier's presence also is affecting the local community in different ways. The county christened the access road to the plant Haier Boulevard during an April 2001 visit by Haier Group Chief Executive Officer Zhang Ruimin.
Additionally, four schools within the Columbia, S.C., school district known as Richland 1 in August will begin offering Chinese language classes to their students - making it the first in the state to do so, according to Fatiha Bencheikh, the district's coordinator of foreign language and international programs. Chinese courses will be offered to elementary, middle and high school students, she said.
And who is paying the salary for the full-time teacher of those courses for the next two years? Why, the Chinese government, of course.