The Spark: Happenings in Upstate Biz with Trevor Anderson

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Diversity is a concept that is highly championed, yet remains somewhat elusive in terms of its implementation and realization.

As South Carolina seeks to capitalize on its status as one of the nation’s most business-friendly states, one event in the Upstate provided a blueprint for a cultural change across the nation and, maybe, the globe.

Spartanburg County-based BMW Manufacturing Co. hosted its seventh annual Tier 1 Supplier Diversity Matchmaker Conference on Thursday, April 5, at the TD Convention Center in Greenville.

Louise Connell, head of supplier diversity for the plant, said the event featured 243 of its Tier 1 suppliers and community partners, up from 213 during the previous year.

She said more than 2,200 people filled the convention hall, compared with about 2,000 in 2017.

Founded in 2011, the event was originally geared to connect women and minority small-business owners with companies and organizations that could provide them with opportunities to grow their ventures. Veteran-owned businesses were added to the mix this past year.

The first conference was held in a parking garage at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research. It featured about 50 suppliers and attracted about 600 participants.

Connell said supplier support for the event has evolved into an almost unstoppable force.

The buzz and energy throughout the hall this past Thursday was palpable.

“We are sending a message that we are not a good old boys club,” said Knudt Flor, president and CEO of BMW. “We need and depend on diversity. These companies provide us with ideas and better supply. They are passionate. One of our goals is to show we are really rooted in the community. It isn’t just words. It’s easy to stand up on a stage and say [we’re all about diversity]. It’s another thing to [put it into practice].”

Flor said the plant’s supplier network has increased by 400 percent since the conference’s inception.

Officials from BMW’s plants in Mexico and Germany were at this year’s conference to collect information that could eventually lead them to replicate the event in their respective communities.

State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who was also part of the crowd, said his impressions of the event were very positive. He said he wouldn’t mind someday seeing a similar statewide conference.

While diversity has been hailed for all of its benefits as a means of giving companies a competitive edge, it’s still widely viewed as a word that gets a lot of lip service and a lukewarm embrace.

BMW appears to be demonstrating how diversity can have a tangible impact on growth, performance, and corporate culture. And it might become another model for the Upstate automaker to export.

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