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Episode 61: Coming To America: World’s Largest Solar Panel Manufacturer Finds A Home In Jacksonville

According to the US-based, Solar Energy Industries Association, solar energy has experienced an average annual growth rate of 50% over the past decade. Jinko Solar, a Chinese company founded just 13 years ago in 2006, has emerged as the largest manufacturer of solar energy panels in the world. Jinko employs 13,500 people and has eight factories around the globe that produced an estimated 30 million panels in 2018. But what they didn’t have was a US manufacturing presence.

That all changed in the past year with Jinko’s decision to build a $50 million manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida. For today’s story we interview Jinko Solar’s Jeff Juger, the JAXUSA Partnership’s Aaron Bowman and Florida Power & Light’s Crystal Stiles. The episode includes tales of a rain-drenched economic developer, a flat tire while traveling with the company and a Sunday morning site inspection arranged at the last minute.

Patience Fairbrother (DCI): The solar-energy industry is experiencing explosive growth. According to the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 50% over the past decade.

Andy Levine (DCI): Jinko Solar, a Chinese company founded just 13 years ago, in 2006, has emerged as the largest manufacturer of solar-energy panels in the world. Jinko employs 13,500 people and has eight factories around the globe that produced an estimated 30 million panels in 2018.

Patience: But what they didn’t have prior to 2018 was a U.S. manufacturing presence, and that’s where today’s story starts.

Andy: So, welcome to episode 61 of “The Project, Inside Corporate Location Decisions.” I’m Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.

Patience: And I’m Patience Fairbrother, also at DCI, and Andy’s co-host of the project. This week, we bring you the story of Jinko Solar and their decision to build a 50-million-dollar manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida. The facility opened less than a year ago, in November 2018.

Andy: We’ll start our story with Jeff Juger, a 34-year-old executive who’s been in the solar industry for 9 years in the past 4 years with Jinko Solar. His title is Director of Business Development, but from our perspective, he was the U.S.-based member of the site-selection team for this project. In fact, this was the first site-selection search that Jeff had ever been involved with. We asked him to give us the elevator speech about Jinko Solar.

Jeff Juger (Jinko Solar): Jinko is indeed the world’s largest producer of solar panels. We’ve been publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange since 2010, we sell in 108 countries now. We’ve sold more solar panels than any other company globally for each of the last 3 years, and we expect that to continue. Our customers trust us because we always do what we say, we never break commitments, we produce very high-quality solar panels, and we deliver them at an on-time rate of 99.9%, which is a pretty astonishing feat.

Andy: You’re obviously a fast-growing company. I gather you have manufacturing facilities around the world but the facility in the U.S., this is the first one that you have sited. Can you tell us about, I don’t know, sort of the decision to set up a manufacturing facility in the United States?

Jeff: So I’ll take that in two parts, one about the growth and the other how we got to this point in the U.S. So we’re continuing to grow all across the globe. In 2016, we were ranked 16th in the “Fortune Magazine” list of the 100 fastest-growing public companies, and we’ve continued that very fast growth since then. So we have a lot of capacity in Malaysia and, as we are expanding, we felt that the U.S. was a necessary place to invest in further expansion.

And another cool benefit of having a factory in the U.S. is that customers who might not wanna travel all the way to the other side of the world to see our facility can now hop on over to Florida and check out our capabilities pretty quickly. Building a factory in the U.S. was definitely no small feat and we did it at a really fast pace, which we think was another sign to our customers about our commitment to the U.S. market.

Patience: So Jinko solar is in the very early stages of a site-location search.

Jeff: Because the U.S. is so big, we definitely needed to narrow our focus, particularly because the time line was going so quickly. So the consensus was that the south-east was a good place to start the search, primarily actually because it’s one of the fastest-growing regions for solar. We wanted to be located in an area where there would be strong growth. We toured a bunch of cities in the southeast and met with key officials in all those places. Everyone was super hospitable.

Patience: The state of Florida was not included in the initial site search but that changed when Florida Power & Light and their parent company NextEra Energy became aware of Jinko’s plans to build a manufacturing facility in the United States. Florida Power & Light had ordered seven million solar panels from Jinko Solar and that helped them get Jinko’s attention. Here’s Crystal Stiles, Director of Economic Development for Florida Power & Light.

Crystal Stiles (Florida Power & Light): We were talking with many of our vendors. You know, when you’re deploying that many solar panels, we’re buying from multiple providers, and so, we spoke with many. And Jinko was very excited about the opportunity that existed in Florida and in other locations across the U.S.

Andy: You then said, you know, it’s important that these be made in the United States, but even better, let’s make them in Florida.

Crystal: Absolutely. We’re headquartered here in Florida, we love Florida. You know, my task, as an economic development practitioner within Florida Power & Light company is to encourage business investment in Florida. And so, you know, our primary business goal was to bring a supplier to the U.S.

Andy: Now, site selection is often focused on data, and numbers, and building a business case. But often there’s a funny story that makes the profession a bit more human. And such is the case with Crystal’s first meeting with Jinko.

Crystal: I had very little notice that I was going to pitch Jinko. Our Vice President of Supply Chain is a great partner and really recognizes the power that, you know, the suppliers that we contract with can bring to Florida. And so, he called and he said, “Hey, can you come and pitch this company?”

So I’m driving to the office and we had a little bit of a parking problem at the time, we were sort of in growth mode and we just had parking challenges. So I ended up, not exactly double parking, but I think I was parked near a fire hydrant, and I just pulled over on the side of the road, jumped out and ran to the meeting.

Andy: The things an economic developer will do.

Crystal: Absolutely, I had to make the pitch. I had to make the pitch, it didn’t matter. I was on corporate headquarters property, so I just assumed I was fine. So I run into the meeting and I feel like it’s going well. And so, we started talking through Florida’s value proposition, and I’m trying not to look at my phone, but I start to see it lighting up and there’s a number that just calls me over and over and over again.

And then, my email starts pinging, and I’m ignoring it because I’m full-on economic-development pitch. Right? And then, my boss calls me. And then, she texts me and she says, “Corporate security is trying to get in touch with you because they’re gonna tow your car because you’re parked too close to the fire hydrant.”

Andy: So Crystal calmly asked if they might take a 5-minute break from the discussions and she headed out to move her car.

Crystal: So I ran out, moved my car. Well, as it does sometimes in Florida, the time it took me to get in my car and relocate my car, it started raining sideways.

Andy: Oh, no.

Crystal: And I didn’t have an umbrella in the car. And so, I jump out of the car, I run back in the office and, in the 5 seconds it took me to get into the office, I’m totally soaked. Just completely drenched. So I walk back in the conference room and I look like Crystal, I still have on the suit that I had on when I walked into the meeting, but now I’m drenched.

My hair is sopping wet, I’m literally just dripping. And I walk in the conference room and I sit back down to resume a meeting. And the leadership team kind of looked at me, like “What happened to you in the 5 minutes that we took a break? This is very bizarre.”

Patience: Crystal feared that would be the end of the discussion, but it wasn’t. And Jinko Solar kept looking but they added several Florida communities to their list of possibilities. Let’s go back to Jeff Juger.

Andy: What were the three most important factors in the location decision?

Jeff: The three most important factors in the location decision were access to a deep water port, evidence of a thriving business community, and a quality-labor pool. At a minimum, we knew we had to be close to a deep water port since a lot of the materials used to assemble solar panels still come from abroad. And because we were moving fast, we also needed to have real estate available to us. So once we had those basic things out, we whittled down to a handful of cities. And then from there, it was evaluating the business environment and availability of labor. And that’s how we went about the process.

Andy: You mentioned real estate, I’m assuming you needed an existing facility with this aggressive time frame. Yes?

Jeff: That’s right, we needed an empty building. And preferably a new building because solar panel manufacturing facilities have very specific requirements. And if there was existing equipment or infrastructure inside, we’d have to tear that out, and then, put ours in. And so, ideally, it was an empty building for us to customize the way we saw fit.

Patience: So Jinko Solar had narrowed the field to six finalist communities, including Jacksonville, Florida. And working the project for the region was Aaron Bowman, Senior Vice President with the JAXUSA Partnership.

Aaron (JAXUSA Partnership): It was an interesting first visit, it was actually the day after the Florida-Georgia game. And they said, “We’ve identified a building available and we’d like to look at them on Sunday morning at 9 o’clock.” So we actually showed them, at the time, two buildings, one of the requirements that we had a facility that was already available. And so, we had an 800,000 square foot building and a 400,000 square foot building that we showed them.

Andy: Is that normal routine for you to show something on a Sunday morning like that?

Aaron: It’s normally not on a Sunday, and I think I got that call on Thursday afternoon. And you can imagine, trying to get the…showing brokers and the owners to agree to come open up a building. And they did and we spent about an hour in each building. Really, who they brought with them, it was a group of about five or six, I think two of them spoke English, the rest of them didn’t. But you can tell what they were looking at, and the questions they’re asking, and the availability, and things, that it was a very serious customer.

Andy: Did that make it more challenging than that you were working with someone who, you know, was a big established company but this was their first go-round looking at the U.S.?

Aaron: Oh, it was very very challenging. Imagine if you wanted to go open a company up in China, what you would need to know. So I mean there were many things we had to walk them through and make sure they understood permitting questions, OSHA questions, HR questions, utility questions. I’ve got a foreign piece of equipment, “How do I get it certified to use in the United States? How do I find builders? What kind of insurance do I need?” So literally, we were covering the entire scope of what it would take for their first step into the U.S. market to get up and running. And they had a very tight schedule too.

Patience: We asked Jeff Juger what made Jacksonville stand out from the other communities that made the short list. He talked about the port, he talked about the labor market, and he talked about the real-estate options in the region. But he also highlighted the approach that JAXUSA took to winning the project.

Jeff: Honestly, I think it was this human touch and the business community that really stood out. I think the best experience we had was on our first visit, JAXUSA brought pretty much everyone and anyone we could’ve possibly had a question for into the room. And any question that we had was immediately answered. In a lot of other places, the answers were, “We’ll get back to you on that.” And so, we felt like from an urgency and resource perspective, Jacksonville stood out.

Patience: Jeff also described a road trip that the site-selection team made with JAXUSA President Jerry Mallot.

Jeff: During the process, we, you know, were negotiating with Enterprise] Florid and because we were unfamiliar with the process, the president of JAXUSA, back then it was Jerry Mallot, he volunteered to drive us from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.  He even got a flat tire on the way and we fixed that and went on, but it was just a trip that we won’t forget anytime soon because it just showed us the dedication that JAXUSA had to helping us across the finish line.

Andy: Who fixed the tire?

Jeff: We were on the highway and we happened across, luckily, a, you know, a tire-repair shop. And so, while Jerry was negotiating the tire repair, I and the other two gentlemen from China were munching on some gummy bears in the backseat.

Andy: As we mentioned at the start of the podcast, this was the first and only site-selection search that Jeff had ever been involved with. So, as the final word in today’s episode, we asked him what were his main takeaways from the experience.

Jeff: It’s really easy to get caught in the details and it’s not always easy to keep the big picture in mind. What I mean by that is, and there’s lots of variables, obviously, in where you would select, so for example, it was really easy to get stuck on a particular aspect like when we were negotiating utility rates. Just because one city’s utility is offering you rock-bottom rates doesn’t mean that the labor pool will necessarily be sufficient for your needs.

So, you know, we ended up with Jacksonville because they stand out from a lot of those important factors. And so, that would be my big takeaway is to see the bigger picture, understand that there’s multiple variables at work, and just because one particular variable is going really well in one particular city doesn’t mean that the overall picture is the best.

Patience: Jinko Solar began production in its new manufacturing facility in Jacksonville, Florida, in November, 2018. The company committed to hiring over 200 people and, according to Jeff, they’re well over that number already. They’re now producing two panels every minute, 7 days a week, 365 days per year.

Andy: There is one coda to our story. Now you might think that Florida Power & Light is providing the electrical energy to Jinko to produce all of those solar panels. It turns out that’s not the case. The City of Jacksonville has its own utility called JEA and they supply power to Jinko. But that’s okay with Florida Power & Light. As Crystal Stiles told us, quote, “A business succeeding anywhere in the state is good for our business, whether they’re our customer or not,” unquote.

Patience: So, Andy, we are up to the takeaways portion of the episode.

Andy: Yes, we are. Here we are.

Patience: So, first of all, what an interesting company and a really interesting project? Was the company acting alone or did they work with an advisor or consultant on the project?

Andy: Good question. There was a consulting firm, it was out of South Carolina, really more of a law firm, a site-selection consultant. So they did have some guidance and, from what I gathered from Jeff, that company was very helpful in helping them sort of find a path in the U.S.

Patience: So another question here, they were on a really tight timeline. From what you said, the company launched its search in November, 2017, announced the Jacksonville location in March, 2018, and is now making their first solo panels there starting November, 2018. So what was driving this tight timeline?

Andy: You know, part of it I think just the company and the company culture. They moved fast and, you know, they’ve obviously achieved a tremendous amount in just, you know, being in business for 13 years. But the U.S. market was also just growing very very rapidly for them. They wanted to show a commitment to the market, they felt it was important to establish a U.S. manufacturing presence. And that’s what they did.

Patience: So, on the topic of locating in the U.S., there’s been a lot of coverage on the current trade war with China. Did that have an impact on the project, from your perspective?

Andy: Great question. And this was a little bit tricky to get into with Jinko. But there was a new tariff announced in January, 2018, a tariff on solar panels. What Jeff basically told me was that did accelerate and sort of pressed for the desire to be making solar panels in the U.S. The project probably would’ve happened without that but it did sort of press the timeline and moved things along faster.

Patience: So that is a wrap on episode 61 of “The Project, Inside Corporate Location Decisions.”

Andy: Our sincere thanks to Jeff Juger of Jinko Solar, Aaron Bowman of the JAXUSA Partnership, and Crystal Stiles of Florida Power & Light.

Patience: We also want to thank Lyndsay Rossman, also of JAXUSA Partnership, for setting up all of these interviews.

Andy: The project is sponsored by DCI, we are the leader in marketing places and have served over 450 different cities, states, regions, and countries. You can learn more about us at aboutdci.com

Patience: We hope you will keep listening. There are many more projects to come.

 

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