What NC leaders are (and aren’t) saying about VinFast factory

I’m Brian Gordon, tech reporter for The News & Observer, and this is Open Source, a weekly newsletter on business, labor and technology in North Carolina.

On the morning of April 17, we broke the story that construction had stalled at VinFast’s electric vehicle factory site in southeastern Chatham County.

County officials approved VinFast’s original building plans last summer, but in December, the company said it desired a different, smaller layout for its multibillion-dollar assembly plant. Chatham said this would be fine, but it needed to approve the revisions before construction could restart. Four months passed without VinFast submitting anything, and Chatham officials said they didn’t know when VinFast might do so.

Then, approximately 12 hours after our story published in mid-April, the EV manufacturer sent the county its new building plans.

I don’t mention this to pat ourselves on the back. I am truly curious what this timing suggests about VinFast’s intentions in North Carolina, especially in light of more news this week that puts the company’s promised 7,500-worker local facility in further doubt. Was VinFast sitting on revised plans and not sending them until it felt pressure? Was it a coincidence? If the former is true, how serious can the plans be?

Heavy equipment prepares the site for a new VinFast production facility Friday, July 28, 2023 in Moncure.
Heavy equipment prepares the site for a new VinFast production facility Friday, July 28, 2023 in Moncure. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

On Wednesday, Reuters cited someone familiar with the Chatham project who said the factory could face another delay. The plant was initially supposed to begin producing vehicles in 2024. After a postponement to 2025, its now poised to open sometime in 2026 or after.

Never is also a possibility. No significant building had occurred at the 1,765-acre site southwest of Raleigh more than two years after the project was announced. Compared to early 2022, U.S. electric vehicle enthusiasm has dimmed and VinFast has lost several billion dollars.

In the company’s latest earnings call, executives described future factories in India and Indonesia but only addressed its North Carolina timeline when prompted by an investor near the end. This echoed something a former VinFast employee told me this winter: The carmaker bet big on the North America and Europe markets around 2021, when the manufacturer first pivoted to market electric vehicles to drivers outside of Vietnam. But since then, it has increasingly looked toward more developing areas.

“VinFast is conducting a thorough review and evaluation of all aspects of the construction process for our North Carolina factory,” a company spokesperson emailed the N&O this week.

I will be interested to see how state politicians react to the project’s mounting murkiness. In an email Wednesday, a spokesperson for Gov. Roy Cooper said VinFast officials “have emphasized their longterm commitment to this project.”

Rep. Robert Reives, the House Democratic leader, declined to comment on the latest VinFast news through a spokesperson. Reives represents Chatham County and spoke at the carmaker’s groundbreaking ceremony in July. Sen. Natalie Murdock, another Democrat representing Chatham, did not give a comment either. But news of VinFast’s arrival in March 2022 was also celebrated by top state Republicans like House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. Neither men attended VinFast’s groundbreaking last summer, and a spokesperson for Berger did not respond to a request for comment this week.

N.C. Commerce Department spokesperson David Rhoades said in an email Wednesday that “the state’s commitment to the project has not changed and neither have the strong protections we put in place to guard the state’s investment in the project site.”

That North Carolina awarded VinFast $1.25 billion in incentives has some skeptics shouting of a potential “boondoggle,” but I recommend you read our explainer detailing the ins and outs of the incentive deals to better judge for yourself.

First Citizens’ SVB success

Silicon Valley Bank’s dramatic collapse in March 2023 grabbed headlines, but the startup-focused financial institution still operates as a division of the Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank.

And it seems to be going quite well. First Citizens stock has doubled since the acquisition and deposits from legacy SVB seem to have stabilized. Instead of mostly fighting to preserve legacy Silicon Valley, First Citizens could soon go on “offense” and grow this new segment, one analyst suggested.

In a sense, First Citizens and Silicon Valley were strange bedfellows. The former is a traditional, family-owned bank founded in 1898 that’s operating in North Carolina’s decidedly second-biggest banking hub. The latter was a Bay Area go-to place for early-stage startups looking for services tailored to their unique needs. But the cultures of the two institutions have blended well, First Citizens President Peter Bristow said in an interview earlier this month.

And many, though not all, Triangle-based startup founders agreed the SVB transition under the traditional Raleigh bank has been pleasantly smooth.

First Citizens Bank headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. The family-owned back has been in the region since the late 1800’s.
First Citizens Bank headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. The family-owned back has been in the region since the late 1800’s. Kaitlin McKeown kmckeown@newsobserver.com

Clearing my cache

  • No matter VinFast’s future, state incentives aren’t going away. This week, the commerce department awarded two job development investment grants to the discount chain Ross Dress for Less and a garbage truck manufacturer to add jobs in Randolph County and Rowan County respectively.
  • North Carolina is hardly a big union state, but seven unions have filed for elections since April 1, which is an uptick from the norm. One of those union campaigns is at the Sibelco mining company in Mitchell County, where the purest quartz in the world can be found.
  • Google and the Cary-based Epic Games were in court this week as a federal judge weighs what remedies Google must take after a jury found it guilty of anti-competitive app store behaviors late last year. The judge said he wanted a conclusion that benefits all app developers, not just Epic, and that Google “is an illegal monopolist (and) will have to pay some penalty.”
  • Gov. Cooper has been in Europe all week, leading a state delegation on an economic development trip through France, Germany and Switzerland.
  • Lenovo, which has one of its headquarters in Research Triangle Park, raised $2 billion from part of the Saudi Arabia sovereign-wealth fund and entered an agreement to construct a manufacturing center in the region.
  • Bayer, the German biotech company, has expanded its partnership with Durham’s Pairwise to commercialize 10 varieties of Pairwise’s unique leafy greens. Last year, Pairwise introduced the first food in the United States created with the genome-editing technology CRISPR. It was a salad featuring non-pungent mustard greens.

Alyssa Stoner inoculates a tobacco plant at Pairwise in Research Triangle Park.
Alyssa Stoner inoculates a tobacco plant at Pairwise in Research Triangle Park. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

National Tech Happenings

  • The U.S. Justice Department is suing Live Nation Entertainment, which owns Ticketmaster, over the concert promotion/sales company’s alleged anti-competitive activities. Ticketmaster currently accounts for 70% of U.S. ticket sales.
  • 2,500 leaked Google documents reveal insights into what data the search engine giant collects.
  • The 1990s are back, or at least the clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch seems to be. The company’s stock is up a blistering 475% in the past 12 months alongside rising revenues.

Thanks for reading!

This story was originally published May 31, 2024, 8:30 AM.

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Brian Gordon is the Technology & Innovation reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He writes about jobs, start-ups and all the big tech things transforming the Triangle. Brian previously worked as a senior statewide reporter for the USA Today Network and covered education for the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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