North Carolina’s 10 Major Industries: Tradition, Evolution & Innovation

North Carolina’s top business industries have evolved enormously in the past few decades.

The state, once best known for tobacco, textiles and furniture, now is home to 13 Fortune 500 companies. North Carolina is still home to companies in those industries, such as Winston-Salem-based clothes maker Hanesbrands, which recently had $6.9 billion in revenue. But three of the Fortune 500 companies are in financial services. Advanced manufacturing, health care, energy and technology businesses are also on the list.

With a population of 10.5 million and 10 cities with more than 100,000 residents in communities stretching more than 300 miles from the ocean to the mountains, North Carolina is home to a variety of business sectors that are stable, succeeding, growing and engaged in innovation, thanks to a diverse, skilled and well-educated workforce, low tax rates and easy access to transportation and logistics channels through road, rail, air and maritime connections to the region and world.

Here are some insights into North Carolina’s top business industries:

nc aerospace

1. Aerospace and defense

As the aerospace and defense industries often work in partnership, the state is in an exceptional position thanks to the presence of major military installations such as Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg-Pope Army Airfield and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

That significant military presence also means there are thousands of trained, skilled veterans who are ready to work. Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, GE Aviation and Spirit AeroSystems are just a few of the aerospace companies based in or doing business in North Carolina.

The state also is a base of industry innovation as the home of the North Carolina Global TransPark in Kinston. The industrial airpark features an 11,000-foot runway and supports manufacturing and logistics needs for the aerospace and defense industries.

There’s also industry innovation in higher education, as North Carolina universities are leading research into unmanned aerial vehicles and many of the state’s colleges have top programs in aerospace engineering and related disciplines.

2. Automotive and heavy machinery

Hundreds of automotive-related companies operate in North Carolina producing components such as engines, transmissions, brake systems and trim and finishing trim for vehicle interiors.

Some of the companies doing business here include Bridgestone, Caterpillar, Borg Warner, Freightliner, and Thomas Built Buses, the largest school bus manufacturer in the country, as a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks Thomas, which is based in High Point, sells products throughout North America.

These companies are supported by numerous professional research centers and programs that drive automotive industry innovation through development and testing. They include the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research or NCCAR, which is an independent nonprofit center that focuses on automotive product research, development and testing. NCCAR’s facilities include a 2 mile road course, off-road trails and workshops.

The state is also home to the UNC Charlotte Motorsports program. It’s one of the first stops for anyone pursuing a career in motorsports and offers hands-on, practical experience to shape future professionals in the racing and automotive industries.

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3. Food processing and manufacturing

More than 178 million customers are within a day’s drive of North Carolina. This prime location on the East Coast is further strengthened by easy access to road, rail and maritime transportation links to the rest of the region, the country and internationally.

NC is the second largest state for food and beverage processing with about 1,000 such companies in the industry. Campbell’s, Butterball, Smithfield and Sierra Nevada.

Texas Pete, known for its Louisiana-style hot sauce, is actually based in Winston-Salem, not the Lone Star State, and Mt. Olive, best known for its pickles, are just a few of the familiar food brands doing business in North Carolina.

Through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the state is a top backer of the agriculture and food industries, engaging in research, supporting environmental protection and providing marketing and promotion.

And there’s significant room for industry growth, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the General Assembly. The study found that food manufacturing could contribute $10.3 billion annually to the state’s income and 38,000 jobs to the economy, as North Carolina has underutilized manufacturing capacity.

A 35 member task force was formed the next year, composed of experts in agribusiness, food processing and packaging and economic development in order to take advantage of food and agriculture-related business opportunities.

4. Information technology

Small startups and superpowers in information technology, like Google, IBM and Cisco, are among the companies that call North Carolina home. They cite business advantages such as low taxes, an active entrepreneurial environment and significant investments in research and equity funding. Forbes ranked Raleigh America’s No. 2 tech hub, saying millennials prefer the City of Oaks thanks to plenty of job opportunities and a low cost of living.

North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is one of the country’s best known hubs for innovation. The Research Triangle has been a hub of innovation for more than 60 years. It’s home to hundreds of science, technology and startup companies, and located close to three large research universities -- Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State.

In addition, organizations like the North Carolina Technology Association advocate for innovation and facilitate professional connections by uniting industry, government and education leaders. NC Tech has more than 700 members representing more than 200,000 employees.

5. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical

North Carolina is No. 1 in the U.S. in both biotech and pharmaceutical manufacturing based on the total number of employees.

Bayer, BASF, LabCorp and Novo Nordisk do business in North Carolina. They have the support of numerous industry partners, such as the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. It’s a 350-acre scientific community campus where collaborative research and product development in health and nutrition are conducted in collaboration with eight universities.

Life sciences create jobs around developing better healthcare, faster more accurate diagnostic innovations and data, and sustainable, environmentally friendly food production. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center also connects the state’s biotech and life sciences workforce with employers. The organization has maintained the support and funding of the General Assembly for three decades.

6. Furniture

North Carolina’s longstanding history as a hub of furniture production continues in the 21st century. More than 600 lumber and wood product establishments call the state home, as do household names such as Ethan Allen, Ashley Furniture, Lexington Home Brands and Sealy.

According to the NC Department of Commerce, the state has the largest furniture industry in the nation made up of 3,000 establishments and more than 35,000 employees, which gives North Carolina a concentration of furniture manufacturing activity that’s more than three times the national average.

The state is also home to the High Point Market, which is the world’s largest trade show for the furnishings industry. More than 75,000 people visit High Point twice a year to engage with more than 2,000 visitors from over 100 countries.

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7. Business and financial services

At 2.5 percent, North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate won’t cut into the bottom line if you’re in the financial services industry. In addition, Forbes ranked North Carolina the No. 1 state for business in 2019, saying the cost of doing business in NC is 10% below the national average and labor costs are 8% below the national average.

Ernst & Young and the Council on State Taxation also ranked North Carolina tops for the lowest state and local tax burden in the U.S.

More than 300,000 people work in the financial services industry in NC. Those employees are part of companies such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Fidelity Investments, Lending Tree and Credit Suisse.

Choosing to start or grow a financial sector business here also puts you close to advocacy groups such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. This national professional organization advocates and focuses on public policy and public interest issues of relevance for the industry.

The North Carolina Treasury Management Association also supports the industry as does Queen City Fintech, which works to create a community that fosters growth, drives innovation, inspires growth and fosters inclusion in the financial and insurance startup sectors.

8. Textiles

North Carolina is home to the largest textile mill industry in the U.S. and employs more than 27,000 people in over 600 textile manufacturing facilities at companies like Kimberly-Clark, Gildan Activewear and National Spinning Company. The state had about $2 billion in textile exports in 2017.

NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles is a leading source of industry education and innovation. The college says the U.S. textile industry is resurging with new investments in innovation. Students receive mentoring and conduct undergraduate and graduate research in modern teaching, manufacturing and collaborative spaces. Those students are looking for work experiences through summer internships, and the college has an alumni network that’s thousands strong.

NC State is also home to the Nonwovens Institute, which is a partnership between industry, government that bills itself as the world’s first accredited academic program for the field of engineered fabrics.

9. Plastics and chemicals

Internationally known companies, including DuPont, Dow and PPG are among the entities in the plastics and chemicals industry that operate in North Carolina. With more than 75,000 workers, the state has a large and highly concentrated workforce in the industry.

To further support the industry, North Carolina created the Polymers Center of Excellence. This Charlotte-based non-profit organization works to assist in the development of emerging industry technologies, as well as providing technical support.

10. Tourism and outdoor recreation

About 250,000 professionals are employed in tourism or outdoor recreation-related industries in North Carolina. That equates to about 1 out of every 45 North Carolina residents being directly employed in tourism.

Direct visitor spending has also increased steadily over the last five years, reaching $26.7 billion in 2019. In 2019, 89% of people who visited North Carolina did so for fun and 7% came for business purposes, according to Visit North Carolina. Summer was the most popular season, with 31% of visits, followed by spring and fall, with 24% of visitors coming during those seasons. Nearly half stayed overnight in a hotel.

In addition, North Carolina’s Outdoor Recreation Industry office works at the state level to support and grow the outdoor recreation economy statewide through collaboration through businesses and local communities. The office’s focus in economic development, education, workforce training, and environmental stewardship.

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