On December 29, 2022, South Carolina lost an incredible leader and good man in Joe Taylor, Jr. At the time of his passing; he was serving on the Columbia City Council. He’d been a successful businessman, a dedicated family man, and South Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce from 2006 to 2011. To anyone who knew him, he was a loyal friend, wise counsel, and unwavering advocate for South Carolina. In the political world, you rarely get to meet someone who got involved simply because he wanted the state or, later, the Midlands to be a better place for the people who called it home.
He existed in politics only when he believed he could make things better, but he had no interest in the attention that so many others did. He did his best work encouraging others to shine and made sure the spotlight hit them instead of him. I was blessed to work with him while he was Secretary of Commerce under Governor Sanford. When the scandal struck in 2009, Joe bet on me when no one else would, becoming a friend and confidant.
The Early Years
While attending Wofford College, Joe’s father started Southland Log Homes with Joe. He proudly supported Wofford, and the athletic center bears his name today after he generously donated to renovate the facilities in 2009. When I asked Joe about his time at Wofford, he said, “I graduated, and they haven’t asked for the degree back yet.” I got the sense college was part of his story but not necessary for his success.
Joe’s father died when he was 25 years old, and he took the reins of Southland Log Homes and built it into a global success. When he sold the company in 2005, it was the largest producer of pre-cut log buildings in North America. That sale set the stage for what would come next, public service.
Becoming Secretary of Commerce
When Governor Sanford took office in 2003, he appointed Joe to the Jobs Economic Development Authority (JEDA). JEDA works with companies to access bond capital to invest and grow jobs in the state. During his time on the JEDA Board, Joe actively worked to ensure the tax-exempt bond issues promised a return on the investment for South Carolina.
In 2006, then-Commerce Secretary Bob Faith was set to step aside to return full-time to his business in Charleston. Impressed with Joe’s work on the JEDA Board, Sanford tapped him to become the next Secretary of Commerce. Whenever we had a Cabinet appointment, it was my job to meet with them, brief them on administration policy and help them prepare for confirmation hearings.
I didn’t know Joe all that well at that point; he had done fine on JEDA and didn’t need help from me to do his work. When dealing with 13 cabinet agencies and hundreds of statewide appointments, not having to deal with one more person was a welcome respite. When we sat down, Joe was Joe. “Listen, I know what to do. Just walk around, smile, listen, and don’t say anything stupid.” I liked him so far.
My first question was about the travel policy Sanford implemented. To save money, Sanford called on employees to “double up” when possible, and he would share a room with Secretary Faith whenever they made economic development trips abroad. Joe said, “We’re not doing that. Sanford can sleep with one of the other guys. The only person that sleeps in my hotel room is Mrs. Taylor. I’ll pay for my damn room.” Outside the box, but it covered the base.
Our next topic was salary. The previous two Secretaries of Commerce had worked for a dollar a year, sort of a giveback to the state. Sanford had been critical of that arrangement in the 2002 campaign saying, “Nothing against a dollar-a-year guy, but you ultimately get what you pay for.” He’d be reminded of that comment with his first Secretary of Commerce, so Joe had another idea. He was going to take the salary and earn it. “Hoss,” he called me any number of names, “I’m going to work seven days a week recruiting, so I’ll earn it. And it’ll pay for those hotel rooms.”
The Battle for Jobs
He was serious. He was easily confirmed and went to work. Recruiting takes time, and everyone is in the game when the economy is good. We’d had one big announcement in the first term, but economic development is always about the next one, not the last one. Unemployment in South Carolina had stayed higher than expected, so it was only a matter of time before the second-guessing started. Confident that his team had deals in the pipeline, Joe never relented from holding to the strategy rather than trying to find a bad deal or overhype the recruitments we pulled in. Tactics that some of his predecessors had employed to take the heat off.
That’s the thing about Joe. He hired a good group of folks to do recruitment. He encouraged them, pushed them, and believed in them. I think they understood that, but he made it clear to us. He firmly believed our incentives were precious and needed to yield a good return on the investment. A good deal was better than any deal if it meant the jobs and investment weren’t going to be long-term. His patience paid off, and the best was yet to come.
Patience Pays Off
Joe and his team were In 2008, the Department of Commerce brought in $4.1 billion in investment and nearly 19,000 jobs, the state’s best year since 2000. Despite the Great Recession, South Carolina led the Southeast in recruiting in 2009, bringing Red Ventures and a Boeing expansion, generating thousands of jobs in the state today. In 2010, Adidas, Amazon, BMW, and First Quality committed thousands of more jobs to South Carolina. The Boeing and First Quality announcements would receive the 2009 and 2010 Silver Shovel Awards. As Governor Sanford and Joe Taylor left office, our economic development pipeline was wide open, and the state still feels those benefits to this day.
The Argentina Connection
Before Sanford’s 2009 disappearance, there was the 2008 trip to Argentina. Joe had organized a hunt to Argentina before a South American economic development trip. Sanford wanted to go but had to pay his way. In typical Mark Sanford fashion, he decided to go for half the trip. By his logic, he only had to pay half the cost. In exchange, he wanted to add Buenos Aires to the trip, and he would meet up with a Commerce Department staffer to handle that leg of the journey. We’d later learn that Sanford would blow off the official business and begin the affair that became international news the following year.
Days later, Joe and Sanford thought it would be funny to email Sanford’s scheduler, saying Sanford had disappeared. They sat together when Joe sent the email and would later own up to the joke. Had Sanford not actually disappeared twice before I learned about it, I might have even found it funny.
The only thing I got from that 2008 trip was a leather bola Joe gave me as a gift, and it still sits in my office all these years later. As for the rest, I learned about it in the days following Sanford’s infamous 2009 press conference. By then, I was getting a healthy dose of what people had been hiding for the boss over the years.
The Saturday Night Confessional
Sanford returned on Wednesday, June 24, and held his meandering press conference. By Friday, the 26th, we’d held a Cabinet meeting broadcasting around the world. I spent the next day, my 26th wedding anniversary, at home. With everything going on, we decided to keep a low profile. After midnight, I got a text from Joe, “How you holding up?” I responded, “Not great.” My phone rang; it was Joe.
“Hey, what are you gonna do?” I didn’t know. Resigning still seemed like an option.
“How about you?” I asked. “Listen, I’m good. But you can’t leave.”
I needed to hear this, “There ain’t no stink on you, and you’re the only one who knows how to talk to him.”
“Tell me what you know. Everything, spare no detail.” So he did—the trip to Argentina, the disappearance in 2008, the gossip, everything. I paced my neighborhood, listening and smoking one cigarette after another.
When he finished, he said in typical Joe fashion, “I’ll make you a deal; we talk every day; I’ll tell you everything I know. You need me to run interference, and it’s done. We’re in this together, hoss.”
So we talked. I’d been thinking through how to hold things together, come up with a strategy to work through it and try to see this to the end. He listened, counseled, threw in the appropriate humor, and we agreed to call it a night. It was actually 3 am by the time we finished the conversation. For the first time, somebody had my back.
He more than delivered on that bargain. He’d call me, and when I answered, he usually greeted me with something like, “Well, you haven’t quit yet.” He gave good advice, kept me grounded in the middle of insanity, and encouraged me. Joe had a way of keeping you grounded, putting enough gas in the tank to keep you going when you needed it. He was fearless and loyal.
He and his team worked hard to sell South Carolina; by 2008, they were closing stronger than they had in years. Those announcements kept coming despite the economic bad news, the political scandals, and other obstacles. Joe was a force, and you believed anything was possible when you worked with him. It wasn’t just me; it was everyone. Those people are a rare gift.
Here’s the thing, he didn’t need the spotlight and didn’t want it. He pushed other people into it. When we worked on the First Quality deal, he told the owners about my work on clearing up an environmental permitting issue—layers of red tape that required cutting in just the right order. First Quality is a family-owned business, and they were going to hold a private event before the public announcement. He called me and said, “You’re coming to Anderson, hoss. They want to meet you.” I rarely went to public events, especially economic development announcements. He knew I wouldn’t turn down an invitation from a family that had just invested a billion dollars in the state, so I went. He grabbed me by the shoulder when the event was over and said, “You know it’s okay to take a little credit for your work. You did a helluva job.”
A Loss Like No Other
Wherever Joe went, he knew everyone. If he didn’t know you, he would be your friend before the end of the conversation. He worked the phone, listening to your problem and helping find solutions. Joe was the consummate dealmaker, more often than not getting nothing out of it personally but the satisfaction of helping a friend.
In 2021, he was elected to the Columbia City Council, serving the city he loved. He believed Columbia could be a better place to live and work and rolled up his sleeves to make it a reality. He had a positive vision for the future of the Midlands and the ability to see it through. Losing Joe doesn’t leave a big pair of shoes to fill; it leaves an impossible void.
To his wife Amanda and his two children, thank you for sharing Joe with us. The State of South Carolina is a better place to live because of his great work. For those who knew Joe, we’re better because of it.
Joe Taylor is one of many unsung heroes in the history of our State. Thanks for so eloquently capturing his persona and style and for helping cement his legacy...Michael Molony