Bobby Hitt never expected a government career, but is proud of his accomplishments as state commerce secretary
Appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley in 2011 to serve as secretary of commerce, Robert “Bobby” Hitt never imagined he would end up as a state employee. It was “an interesting route to get to this job,” he says.
Hitt grew up in a newspaper family, with both his father and grandfather working as newspaper editors. Hitt says he started working in the family business when he was an undergrad at the University of South Carolina, and it just “sorta stuck.” He spent 17 years at The State and The Columbia Record, serving as managing editor of the Record from 1980 until 1987 and managing editor of the State from 1988 until 1991.
When The State newspaper was sold to Knight Ridder in 1986 (it was later sold in 2006 to the McClatchy Company), Hitt said he realized the newspaper business was changing, and after five years figured out “he was in the wrong fraternity house.”
So, Hitt left the industry and went to work as the director of planning and development at Columbia’s Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm in 1991. Hitt was responsible for helping the company grow its business, and was instrumental in bringing BMW to the Upstate.
That role led to a position at BMW, where he spent almost 18 years as a manager at the company’s Spartanburg plant.
When the transition/search committee for then Gov.-elect Haley called Hitt for advice on candidates with a manufacturing background to be interviewed for secretary of commerce, Hitt says he originally supplied a list of possible contenders. But the committee representative thought that Hitt would be a good candidate himself. Hitt says he agreed to do the interview, but “wasn’t really focused on it and didn’t think there was a chance I would get the position.”
Next thing he knew, Haley was calling him asking if he would take the job.
Hitt says it has been a “remarkable experience,” describing the position as “a calling, not just a job.” Putting together and managing a talented staff focused on putting South Carolina “on the forefront for Southeastern states for manufacturing and continuing to build a middle class in South Carolina” has been “a lot of fun.”
Hitt recently sat down with UBJ to talk about his leadership of the Department of Commerce.
So what is a typical day for you like?
Well, it starts fairly early, ‘cause I’m getting older and you tend to wake up early whether you want to or not. I spend the first couple of hours of the day reading quite a few newspapers, financial and national sites online to keep up with what’s going on. I’ve also been known to send emails to my staff in the middle of the night.
I carry multiple phones with me and my phone starts ringing around 7:30 a.m. I’m in the office in meetings or on the phone all day long, talking to staff, clients, allies, politicians or business leaders. I generally spend a couple of days a week traveling within the state, although that’s fortunately a little less these days.
This is definitely a business job where you are negotiating partnerships. My workweek doesn’t have any specific boundaries and business happens when it happens, even if it’s on weekends or holidays. Two years ago, we closed a major deal on Labor Day. Contrary to popular belief, you usually don’t make deals over a steak dinner and a bottle of wine; it’s more of a good business plan. Although we do take out-of-country visitors to dinner on occasion out of respect, so they’re not left all alone.
How does your background help you in your current role?
Well, I grew up in a newspaper family, and newspaper people have to have a lot of curiosity, have to be a quick study and be able to size up people and circumstances quickly. You got edited every night at the dinner table, and I continue to do that to my sons still today.
I have a lot of curiosity and never really gave much thought about being in the business world. When I was an undergrad, I started as a chemistry major, but when all of the girls left the class, I ended up migrating to journalism. I actually have a degree in advertising and research.
What is the best quality or trait that you bring to this position?
I grew up in Charleston and lived there about 20 years, I lived in the Upstate for about 20 years and in Columbia for 20 years, so one of the things I think I bring to the table is I’ve lived in three major regions of the state. I’ve been able to build different kinds of relationships and am able to bring the best resources available to push South Carolina forward and promote doing business in South Carolina.
What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?
I was part of the team that put together ICAR [the International Center for Automotive Research], and I think that was our team’s best work. We worked with BMW, Clemson and the Department of Commerce to create something that will have a lasting impact in the state.
I’ve also brought a lot of resources together across agencies and believe that’s why we are having a higher level of success than our neighboring states in North Carolina and Georgia.
What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
I like everything about my job. Mostly I like people – the ones I work with and people we get to engage with. I also like that I get to talk about my favorite subject, South Carolina. By style and personality, I’m someone who likes to empower smart people and am very pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish here at the agency.
I also like that I get to work with Gov. Haley. She is terrific in the business world, has good business instincts and is a great deal-closer. CEOs like to talk to CEOs, and she’s the CEO of South Carolina. When I first took this position, I asked her to give me an hour each day, and she does that. She also gives me room to do my job and we complement each other very well.
Least? There are only 24 hours in the day and sometimes my wife helps me remember that. There are times when I would like it to just stop for a little while, but it doesn’t. So I maintain a calendar and try to manage all of the requests that come in. As we have matured together as a staff and team, there are more people who can go out and represent commerce in South Carolina other than just Bobby Hitt, so that helps.
So looking ahead, what’s next when this role ends?
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve never had to look for a job, work just seems to find me. I’ll be 65 years old when this term ends. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I keep trying to retire, but I don’t really think retirement is in my constitution.