Harry Lightsey has returned to his hometown of Columbia, S.C., with a wealth of knowledge and experience, which he hopes will benefit South Carolinians. Lightsey, a little over a year into his role as Secretary of Commerce for South Carolina, has worked at several fortune 500 companies, including General Motors and AT&T, and witnessed transformational changes in those industries over the last 40 years. Now in his new role, Lightsey plans to use that experience to bring the same transformational change to industries in our state.
Ironically, Lightsey's office sits directly across from the state house, less than three miles from where he grew up and attended high school.
After high school, he headed to Princeton University to receive his bachelor's degree with his eye set on law school after graduation. Lightsey returned to Columbia in 1978 to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law.
He had a particular interest in practicing international law, which led him to Dallas, Texas, to work for a company called Southwest Bell. Over the next 20 years, he would work his way up the corporate ladder, experiencing several changes to the company's structure. He worked on several mergers and buyouts, the last of which transformed Southwest Bell into what is now a modern household name, AT&T.
During Lightsey's time in the telecommunications industry, he saw the emergence of modern-day cellphones and wireless companies, which were very different from wall-mounted landlines.
"It went from literally a phone plugged into the wall and a fully rate-regulated monopoly to a highly competitive business built on the wireless phone, the wireless device, and not just voice, but data," Lightsey said.
Lightsey accepted a position with General Motors in 2012. Directing federal governmental affairs and working on emerging technologies like electric vehicles, Lightsey found himself part of another industry amid colossal transformation.
The automobile industry hasn't seen a change like this since the Model T.
"It's the biggest change in that industry since Henry Ford. I was very fortunate to be there and see how that kind of transformational shift impacts the organization, business makers, and business decisions," said Lightsey. "Working for companies going through change makes it possible for me to relate to the business leaders, talk to those thinking about locating in S.C., and explain why it makes sense to be here."
Appointed Secretary of Commerce in 2021, he quickly learned the importance of the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulatory division.
"I've only been here a year, but I quickly saw the importance of our relationship with the Corps," Lightsey said. "What they do is significant, and by working with the Corps, we've produced win-win situations for the environment and economic development."
Lightsey says he has seen South Carolina drastically change since he was a kid. In the 60s and 70s, he saw a state built on the textile industry lose the business to overseas competition. Many wondered what the future held with mills closing and people losing their jobs.
Fifty years later, the industries of tomorrow are here in South Carolina. Global companies such as Boeing and BMW moved to S.C. for its pro-business environment and immense talent pool. Innovative companies like Mercedes and Volvo base their research and production plants in the area as they tackle the auto industry's next frontier, electric cars.
Lightsey says many difficult but necessary changes will need to occur for the betterment of those living here as the technologies of the future become a reality.
"It's a risk to change, and there is a certain comfort level in the status quo. We've seen repeatedly that if we get too comfortable with the status quo, we miss out on the future," Lightsey said. "The one lesson I would say we've got to keep in our mind every day is to embrace the future. We have to think of it as a tremendous opportunity."
A tremendous opportunity indeed, and Lightsey will be ready.