Georgia’s argument as a hub for foreign automotive investment is getting a big boost this week as the South’s biggest industry conference makes its debut in Atlanta.
This year’s Southern Automotive Conference gets under way Wednesday at the Cobb Galleria and lasts through Friday, when Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will address some of the expected 1,800 attendees and 300 exhibitors.
The 11th annual event is expecting to eclipse last year’s record attendance in Birmingham, Ala., by about 50 percent, partly thanks to a heightened presence of companies and attendees from outside the U.S.
The headline sponsor is Kia Motors, the Korean manufacturer that gave Georgia its first foreign car maker about a decade ago, but the foreign presence goes far beyond the state’s existing investors.
Ten of the 11 original equipment manufacturers participating hail from overseas, including German giants like Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, along with a bevy of Japanese heavyweights like Honda and Mazda. The lone purely domestic firm is Blue Bird, the Fort Valley, Ga.-based school bus maker that has had export success in its own right.
This year’s event is introducing international pavilions concentrating companies from participating countries. Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom are all taking advantage of this new feature. More than 20 Japanese companies are expected to attend, aided by the Japan External Trade Organization. Israel, Mexico and Colombia are being considered for next year.
Rick Walker, head of the Georgia Automotive Manufacturers Association (the host of the event), said the South’s arrival as a hub for foreign investment has happened gradually over time, but it’s now indisputable.
“We are a nerve center,” he said, noting the corridor of various auto factories and their related suppliers stretching from Mississippi through Tennessee and the Carolinas. Coming here to be closer to the massive U.S. market, foreign firms find connected ports, skilled workers and hospitable governments in the region, Mr. Walker said.
“We’re an economic force that people are recognizing and wanting to get involved with,” said Mr. Walker, who founded GAMA eight years ago after seeing that just about every other state already had a similar industry organization. These groups from six Southern states have banded together to put on the conference.
While not at all limited to foreign firms, their members are skewing increasingly international. Here for America, a group of international auto makers and dealers, estimates that half of cars in the U.S. were made by foreign-owned companies last year.
Tallying numbers from the group’s 2017 International Automakers and Dealers in America Report, GAMA estimates that the South — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Kentucky, specifically — has seen $42.8 billion in investment, $39.7 billion in purchases from U.S. suppliers and 458,400 jobs generated (including dealerships) by foreign investment in the automotive sector.
Even still, auto makers have been caught in a trade crossfire in recent months, at once facing the prospects of higher input costs due to President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs while also staring down uncertainty regarding NAFTA and retaliatory tariffs on their exported vehicles. (Southern factories like the BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C., have substantial export sales.)
Mr. Walker said trade won’t be a specific topic of discussion at the conference — GAMA and its counterparts leave the lobbying to bigger Washington organizations — but it could easily come up given the slate of expert speakers on the docket.
Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist for Cox Automotive, is to follow the Georgia governor Friday morning with an outlook on the U.S. auto market, which is likely to be colored by the outlook for imported parts and exported vehicles.
Thursday brings the most intense programming. The day includes keynotes by Gary Silberg, KPM’s national sector lead for the auto industry, as well as Lisa Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, who will provide perspective from tier-one suppliers.
In the afternoon, Raj Batra, president of the Siemens Digital Factory Division, will split an hour with fellow keynoter Hagen Radowski, president of Porsche-owned consulting firm MHP Americas.
Mr. Walker said it’s important to point out how the technology focus of the conference dovetails with the types of investments the South is seeing in recent years.
Companies like Groupe PSA and Mercedes-Benz USA have picked Atlanta for their corporate headquarters partly because of the city’s position at the geographic crossroads of technology and auto production. With the future of the industry depending on trends like autonomy and shared mobility, the distance between the factory floor and the head offices can’t be too far.
“Technology is another one of the reasons we are expecting a pretty good turnout,” Mr. Walker told Global Atlanta in September, pointing out the financial technology angle relevant to Atlanta, a payments hub. “The automobile — some people are saying it’s turning into a rolling credit card. It’s all about mobility and technology.”
With that in mind, John Waraniak, head of automotive technology for the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association, is playing a heightened role in this year’s conference. He’s moderating the OEM panel on Thursday as well as presenting at a private board meeting. Friday will also feature a special panel discussion on mobility.
“To me that’s a recognition by the Southern Automotive Conference that our industry is in fact changing,” Mr. Walker said.
Next year’s event will be held in Nashville, Tenn.
Learn more about this week’s Atlanta edition at www.southernautocon.com.