SPARTANBURG, South Carolina — BMW chose this city for its first North American plant 25 years ago, viewing it as an ideal base for plans to become a bigger player in the U.S.
Today, with that goal behind it, a majority of the vehicles rolling off the line here are destined for a customer in one of 140 other countries instead. About 70 percent of the plant's output leaves the U.S., making Spartanburg the country's largest vehicle exporter by a large margin over runner-up Mercedes-Benz in Alabama.
BMW CEO Harald Krueger touts the Spartanburg plant as a testament to free trade. It's a point the company has been making more frequently since President Donald Trump took office.
"I'm not concerned, but we need to play our role to make clear and take this plant as an example," Krueger told reporters during a visit to Spartanburg this year. "With free trade, with the open markets, the United States is benefiting from that approach."
BMW has benefited as well. In 2015, Spartanburg passed BMW's plant in Dingolfing, Germany, to become the company's largest assembly operation. Spartanburg produced 411,171 vehicles in 2016, fifth most in the U.S. and sixth most in all of North America, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
It's a huge transformation from the small operation that started out making only about 60,000 vehicles annually after opening in 1994.
Nine thousand workers here build four crossover nameplates — the X3 through X6 — that play outsized roles in BMW's global growth. The company's biggest vehicle yet, the long-awaited X7, will make five models when it launches late next year. Multiple variants and trim options mean the plant could run for six months straight and not make a duplicate vehicle.
"They located the plant to serve the local market, but the unique aspect, like the Mercedes plant, is the majority of the production is actually being exported," Ron Harbour, a manufacturing consultant with Oliver Wyman, told Automotive News. "And that's very different than all the other transplants built in the last 30 years in North America."
Based on volume and type of product — high-margin, in-demand crossovers — Spartanburg is among BMW's most profitable locations, if not the single most profitable plant in its network, said Joe Langley, associate director of North America forecasting for IHS Markit.