John Ling’s secret sauce is Sichuan. Not the spicy boldness that the southeast China province made famous, but the dialect he speaks — one of three in Mandarin that he uses to help bring billions of dollars in Chinese investments to South Carolina.
“Basically, I’m a business-development guy, I’m a relationship type of guy,” says the 52-year-old managing director of LinVest Consulting LLC.
At the moment, Ling’s life seems steeped in headlines. The coronavirus and ongoing U.S.-China trade war buffet his business and even his family. He recently called his mother in Hainan, an island some 330 miles southwest of Hong Kong.
“I would have thought that place would have been somewhat more immune from this,” he says of the epidemic that has taken more than 2,500 lives, as of Feb. 24. “But I talked to them yesterday, and their condo complex has been totally shut down so they cannot go out and nobody can come in.”
As for the Washington-Beijing trade negotiations, he says uncertainty is driving some Chinese companies to consider planting their flags in the U.S. or creating joint ventures, another LinVest specialty.
“So my pipeline has never been this strong,” he says. Now he says he’s working as many as two dozen deals from here to the Midwest, valued at more than $2 billion.
A continuing mission
LinVest, which he started last May, is simply a continuation of what he’s been doing since his first big get in 1999.
That’s when the Qingdao, China-based Haier Group Corp. invested $40 million in a refrigerator-manufacturing plant in Camden — the first Chinese manufacturing plant built in the U.S. Ever since, his name has been attached to a large roster of multimillion-dollar projects, including, to name just two:
- Jushi, a company headquartered near Shanghai, spent $400 million and hired some 800 workers at its Columbia textile plant. Ling says he invited company executives to tour the site in 2012, but groundbreaking didn’t occur until December 2016.
- Uniscite Inc., which makes plastic films, opened its $70 million investment in Laurens County in 2012.
It was through Greenville Glass Industries Inc. that Ling and Jim Bannister became friends. Their wives, Sophie and Krista, respectively, used to work at what is now a subsidiary of a large Chinese company.
“His personality is such that he’s able to recognize and put together folks who may not recognize that they need this kind of venture in the United States,” says Bannister, managing partner at the downtown law firm Bannister, Wyatt, Stalvey. “He’s easygoing, despite the big numbers that he gets and the intensity. He’s just like a steady ship.”
Ling was born Lin Xīn Wèi, meaning “gratified” or “happy.” Lin says one of his uncles, Frank, moved to the U.S. in 1949 and another, Edward, arrived in South Carolina in the 1960s. It was Frank’s wife, Elaine, who gave him his “Christian name.” (The uncles added the “g” to the family name.)
He came to South Carolina in 1991 to attend Charleston Southern, where he earned his MBA in 1993, after a stint as a manufacturer’s rep for a company that made pre-engineered metal buildings.
In 1995, he and his family moved to Greenville, and in 2000 he was recruited to work for the South Carolina Department of Commerce. Five years later, then-Gov. Mark Sanford recruited him to open the state’s trade office in Shanghai.
“He’s a competent professional who knows his stuff when it comes to economic development,” Sanford says, “and, of equal importance, he can cross both cultures, which makes him an incredibly valuable economic catalyst.”
After nearly a decade in Shanghai, he returned to Greenville. In 2015, the state of Georgia lured him away, but in 2019 declined to renew his consulting contract — because of the trade climate between China and the U.S.
Nowadays, Ling’s consulting keeps him busy, and Sanford says he keeps in touch.
“He’s done enormous work on behalf of the people of South Carolina,” the former U.S. representative says, “and for that, he has my enormous respect and appreciation.”South Carolina depends on world markets
The state’s largest market in 2018 was China. South Carolina exported $5.6 billion in goods to China in 2018, representing 16% of the state’s total goods exports.
China was followed by Canada ($4.0 billion), Germany ($3.8 billion), Mexico ($2.8 billion), and United Kingdom ($2.4 billion).
South Carolina’s exports (2018 value) to major world areas included:
APEC: $19.9 billion
Asia: $14.1 billion
European Union: $9.0 billion
South/Central America and Caribbean: $2.2 billion
Sub-Saharan Africa: $505 million
Source: Office of the United States Trade Representative