Back in 1993, Sherry Coonse McCraw was in her early 20s. She graduated with a full ride from North Carolina State University and was rising quickly as a mechanical engineer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the Sara Lee Corp.
The sharp, blonde-haired engineer designed conveyor systems for the conglomerate’s underwear factories throughout the Southeast, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Company officials often gave her carte blanche to design production systems from scratch, and she headed up the teams installing them, too. NAFTA had recently been signed into law, textile production was moving offshore, and Sara Lee was hustling to fully automate its plants.
Still, for McCraw – whose maiden name is an Americanization of the German “Kuntz” – Europe was calling. She started taking German lessons, and whenever driving down Interstate 85 for work at other Sara Lee plants, her eye wandered to a certain rising pile of dirt in Spartanburg County. In front of it was a sign that had gone up the previous year:
“Future home of BMW Manufacturing”
Today, McCraw is the chief financial officer for BMW’s South Carolina plant, and she has worked there for 24 years – longer than almost anybody else. Her job title has changed a half dozen times as she has taken on roles in planning, production and construction. During that time, she has grown fluent in German, woke up for 2 a.m. meetings with her German counterparts more times than she can count, lived in Germany for three years, and – ultimately – held a key role in the plant’s growth into BMW’s largest production site in the world.
Her husband, Kevin, another early BMW hire, is the plant’s facility manager, and calls come to their house all hours of the day.
“It has never been a 40-hour a week job,” she said.
Back in 1993, as walls rose on the future BMW site, the Germans had not yet sorted out exactly what would happen inside, McCraw recalls.
“They didn’t know exactly how to start things in the United States because they didn’t really have a plant,” McCraw said. “It was just under construction.”
By January 1993, McCraw’s friend and Sara Lee colleague Susan E. Crocker had been hired at BMW as its first vice president of human resources. McCraw had installed a conveyor system for Crocker when the latter was a plant manager in Gretna, Virginia.
“When I got (to BMW), there were three people,” said Crocker, who now owns and operates her own human resources consulting firm in Greenville. “The Germans wanted to write a bunch of plans and concepts, and I told them, ‘We’ve got to hire some people!’”
McCraw, with three years experience in conveyor systems and automation, had the skills the Germans needed to set up production, and Crocker said she knew her friend was a committed worker. Both were mechanical engineering grads from N.C. State and bonded early on.
“We needed people who would be willing to get down and dirty, to wear a uniform,” Crocker said.
Since day one, every BMW employee has worn a uniform, including the president, with their names embroidered on the front. And all carry a badge that reflects the order in which they were hired. Crocker’s badge was No. 4. After her recommendation, McCraw would become BMW’s 39th employee – and one of the few workers still working in the plant today with a single- or double-digit ID.
In 1993, working out of borrowed offices in the historic Montgomery Building in downtown Spartanburg, Crocker read and sorted 9,000 applications to fill the plant’s 128 positions. Boxes full of resumes filled up a room, sorted by mechanical engineering, welding, etc.
“That was before they had software to scan applications in,” Crocker said.
When McCraw got the call from BMW, a series of interviews in front of eight different panels of Germans began.
“It was funny because they weren’t really used to working with women especially, and they took these classes on how to work better with Americans and what they should and shouldn’t do,” McCraw said. “And they were all really afraid of me.”
After McCraw got the job, her first challenge as a rookie car engineer was to figure out how to make one. She traveled to Germany with a small team of associates. They took notes, wrote process descriptions and bought tools.
“We were learning and growing and trying to duplicate where we could from Germany,” she said.
Returning to the United States, her team joined other small teams huddled with their new tools in an off-site training center trying to put together a car. It would take days – putting parts on and taking them off. Nothing could be taken for granted because nobody had built a car before.
“You know, just trying to understand,” McCraw said. “It was such an unusual … it was a first step, asking, ‘Can we do this?’ Building a car has so many steps.”
When the plant’s first assembly line got rolling, associates needed a week to build 10 cars – sedans at the time. A BMW 318i, the first car completed at the plant on Sept. 8, 1994, is on display at the site’s Zentrum museum. McCraw’s signature, along with those from scores of other plant workers from the time, is on the 318i’s passenger-side door.
McCraw would jump in and polish and vacuum cars personally in those long, early days.
“We would get our 10 cars built, and we were cheering,” McCraw said.
Production soon went to 20 cars a week, then 100 cars a day. In 1995, the plant started making Z3 roadsters and then, in the late 1990s, the management team started talking about a new vehicle – the X5. McCraw, who by now had headed up the plant’s finishing area and its power train line, among other things, took on management of X5 production.
She said they thought they were thinking big at first with projected production of 260 cars a day out of the combined Z3-X5 line. But demand just kept growing.
“Before that car was ever even launched, we were at 400 units per day planning,” McCraw said.
Within a few years, the Germans wanted to start building X3s there, too.
“The original planning concept that came from Germany was to build (the X3) on the same line with the X5,” McCraw said. “We fought really hard as a plant and said, hmmm, that’s a bad idea.”
McCraw and her team knew the existing plant could build only so many cars a day – a problem should demand for the vehicles increase. The Greer team made a business case for it, and BMW agreed in 2008 to add a second assembly hall to the site – an investment of $750 million.
This was a pivotal moment for the plant. Under McCraw’s guidance, X3 production shifted to South Carolina from Austria, and production of roadsters, whose demand was inconsistent, came to an end.
“Had we not made that one step to a new plant, we never could have produced the volume we are producing now,” McCraw said.
Today, each of the two assembly halls in Greer produces about 750 vehicles a day, and South Carolina has assumed the global mantle of X-model specialist.
McCraw’s old friend Crocker credited the plant’s success to good timing economically in the early 1990s and the support of state officials. McCraw said the cars themselves have guaranteed the plant’s longevity and expansion. The original conveyor systems that McCraw helped design are still in place in and around “Hall 50,” where a new custom-built X5 rolls off the production line every two minutes or so.
“We were able to produce something here that was special in the market,” McCraw said. “Part of it is luck, I guess.
“And part of it is doing a good job.”