Nico Wijnberg, the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s international business concierge, is still busy welcoming foreign executives to Georgia despite the ongoing global economic crisis.
He said he is available to help international executives and their families with relocation needs and introduce foreign nationals to local Georgia business contacts. As international business concierge, a position that was created at the end of 2007, Mr. Wijnberg works with the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s project managers around the state to help foreign executives transition to living in Georgia.
“I am actually still busy, even since October when the crisis hit Europe. People are being a bit more careful, but they are still coming here. So I’m optimistic,” Mr. Wijnberg said of international executives relocating to Georgia with their companies.
“The economic situation clearly is not good, but at the same time, the world is getting so small. Things are worse in some countries, but then, fuel prices are not as high as they were. So there’s always a silver lining. Things are not only bad. We still have a lot to offer in Georgia,” he added.
While it is too early to know exactly how the global crisis will affect inward investment to the state, Mr. Wijnberg, who is originally from the Netherlands, told GlobalAtlanta that he continues to see companies from Western Europe coming to Georgia. Belgian, Danish, French and German companies, especially, have continued to open or expand operations in the state. And there has been more interest from Chinese investors since Georgia’s office in Beijing opened in March last year, he added.
Since the U.S. economy began a noticeable downturn last year, the Georgia Department of Economic Development, including Mr. Wijnberg’s office, has focused more on “what we’re good at” – supporting existing industries in the state, he said.
He said that he has been paying more attention to international companies that had arrived previously and offering help with any issues the executives and their families may be experiencing.
Mr. Wijnberg assists international businesspersons and their families to get social security numbers and driver’s licenses, organize their banking needs and set up utilities in their homes, among other basic relocation needs.
He said part of his job is explaining Georgia’s education system to international families. Many foreign families do not realize that public schools are not federally funded, so the school district they live in is important, he noted. Mr. Wijnberg works with realtors who understand the needs of foreigners, including large family homes to rent rather than buy and access to Atlanta’s subway system, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA.
For renting houses, setting up utilities or getting car loans, foreign nationals need to establish credit in the United States, which is the most challenging issue they face, Mr. Wijnberg said.
Most countries do not have a credit system that operates on credit scores, he noted. So, to help incoming executives begin to establish credit, Mr. Wijnberg works with some of the companies that cooperate closely with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, such as Bank of America Corp., BB&T Corp., SunTrust Banks Inc. and Wachovia Corp., to address the executives’ personal banking needs.
Mr. Wijnberg recommends that executives do their personal banking at the same institution that their company uses. But while many banks say that they cater to international residents, they may offer only checking accounts, not the credit cards that those residents need to establish credit.
Some smaller banks, however, have begun issuing secured credit cards that individuals can put money onto, much like a debit card, Mr. Wijnberg said. And various stores such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. or Target Corp. have offered brand credit cards that allow customers to establish credit with those stores. But given the current credit crunch, such practices are becoming less common, he noted.
“There is no real solution for this. It depends on each person’s situation. Banks might be able to do something about it, but banks are private companies, and it’s up to them if they want to give someone credit or not. It’s a difficult situation for every state; it’s not just a Georgia issue,” Mr. Wijnberg said. “My hope is to catch this at an early stage when the foreign executives first arrive so we can deal with it then. It’s high on my list when I first meet with them.”
Mr. Wijnberg also explains to foreign nationals how insurance works in U.S., where lawsuits are more common than in other countries. He gives advice on health care, car insurance, driving rules, taxation and even American culture. Cultural differences are something that international people underestimate because they may have already vacationed in California or New York, but coming to live in the South is quite different, Mr. Wijnberg noted.
He said every case he deals with is unique. Foreign nationals who have lived in the U.S. for years may come to him to find out if their social security card is still valid or how to update their family’s immigration status, for example. Mr. Wijnberg said he is constantly calling on international companies around the state to see if they have questions such as these and to help them with any issues they are facing. He frequents many international business events, including those of binational chambers of commerce in Atlanta, to connect with international executives and learn of their needs.
One important aspect of Mr. Wijnberg’s job that he considers an “added value for Georgia” is his work to introduce incoming foreign executives to local Georgia companies, consuls general, international chambers of commerce, similar businesses in their industry and firms from their home country or region. “We want these new execs to feel welcome, so they stay in Georgia and hopefully spread the word in their home countries,” he said.
He added that he and his team could also do the opposite – help Georgia companies to approach the new international executives. “With the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s 10 regional representatives throughout the state, we have eyes and ears everywhere. So, absolutely, we can help make those connections,” he said.
Georgia is currently home to more than 2,500 international companies representing 53 countries and employing more than 160,000 Georgians.
Fifty-three of the 321 new investments made in the state between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, were foreign direct investment projects by international companies. Those 53 projects constituted $1.08 billion, or 33 percent, of the total new investment for that period and were expected to create 7,001 jobs, or 35.6 percent of the total new jobs. These numbers were up from the same period the year before, when 48 (17 percent) of the total 281 new investments were foreign direct investments, constituting $416 million (4 percent of total) and creating 2,836 jobs (17 percent of total new jobs).
When doing business internationally, knowing the right people can be critical. This article is part of a series introducing GlobalAtlanta readers to the state of Georgia’s economic representatives in 10 countries. Click the links below to see short profiles and videos of those on the front lines of the state’s worldwide economic development.