Other than a single visit by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2017 and a smattering of locally led trade missions, Italy hasn’t seen the same level of recruitment interest from Georgia as other European locales like Germany and even the Netherlands.
Yet somehow, investment from the European Union’s third largest economy has emerged as a major force for job-creation. The state is home to 60-plus companies, many of which have quietly built up high-tech operations that employ hundreds of Georgians.
The irony is that the pioneering Italian investors who navigated the state’s business environment on their own might now be best placed to help recruit new ones.
That seemed to be one objective of a webinar hosted Thursday by the Italy-American Chamber of Commerce Southeast’s newly minted Georgia chapter, which is aiming to capitalize on strong momentum in the state’s ties with Italy after a period of dormancy.
The chapter selected its board members in October, spurred on by 2019 visits from both the Italian ambassador and the consul general in Miami. A few months later, it had recruited enough members to reach the quorum required to be recognized as a chapter.
“In January, we celebrated this achievement, and then the world changed,” said Eugenio Fumo, president and CEO at JAS Forwarding, who took up the mantle as the chapter’s first leader at the request of Consul General Cristiano Musillo.
Rather than looking at COVID-19’s impact on Italy, which was hit hard early on by COVID-19 the event held via Zoom aimed to showcase the benefits of Georgia for Italian investors, including those with a presence in Florida that the chamber was hoping to bring here before the pandemic spread.
“We believe that Georgia has enormous potential for Italian investors and entrepreneurs,” said Nevio Boccanera, executive director of the Italy-America chamber in Miami. “The idea is to organize soon after this COVID-19 emergency a conference, seminar and discovery mission for our members, whether in Florida or people that want to join from Italy.”
Such an event would be a nice follow-on to a December luncheon held at the Metro Atlanta Chamber on the future of manufacturing where Italy’s Confindustria association promoted the country’s so-called Belli e ben fatti (“fine and well-made”) products sector, which includes food, fashion, furniture and more.
If the webinar is any indication, they won’t have a hard time finding positive case studies from their peers.
Aquafil USA President Franco Rossi was one of three original executives tasked with finding a factory location for the maker of textiles and fibers. He landed in Cartersville, Ga., in 1999 with no help from the state — he simply wanted to be close to customers in Dalton, the reputed the carpet industry capital of the world.
“I moved from Milano 21 years ago. Supposedly I was going to stay two or three years, and I’m still here — and still counting,” Mr. Rossi said, noting that his kids have grown up here, with one recently getting married. “All this to say, both from a business standpoint and a family and personal life standpoint it has been a very pleasant experience.”
He discovered the positives about Georgia’s land costs, labor, taxes and incentives gradually, but they seem to have served Aquafil well: Its Georgia plant now has 480 workers, and the U.S. unit, which includes other factories, is posting $168 million in revenues, much of it coming from Aquafil’s Econyl fiber that is made from recycled material and can be reused infinitely.
Mr. Rossi’s only complaint? Challenges recruiting workers over the last five years, and the crackdown on immigration has made a tight labor market worse. The moves have “significantly penalized and create trouble for a manufacturing plant like ours, which require shift workers, people who are ready to take on and work a daily shift on machinery.”
Georgia would be pretty much “perfect” if it could somehow fix the company’s labor issues, he said.
Giorgio Carera hasn’t seen the same problem at FAE USA’s distribution center in Flowery Branch, a city in Hall County, which has become the largest such facility outside Italy for the global manufacturer of heavy equipment for forestry, road construction and even de-mining operations.
FAE started in a rented office with two people in 2002, but then bought eight acres northeast of Atlanta after an extensive nationwide search that include such places as California and Illinois, where Mr. Carera lived at the time.
Georgia’s mix of advantages was key — among them proximity to a port and international airport, a favorable time zone, incentives on property taxes and access to university talent, Mr. Carera said, advising companies to do their due diligence and ensure they understand the fast pace of the U.S. market. Ultimately, though, he ended up sounding like a true booster:
“I can guarantee you that Georgia is really the place to be.”
“I have a very good idea and view of the states, and I can guarantee you that Georgia is really the place to be.”
Presenting the Georgia side of things was Ryan Kurtz, a Miller & Martin PLLC attorney who for years has served as the honorary consul of Italy in the state and will soon be succeeded by a newly appointed diplomat. Mr. Kurtz has been instrumental in hosting meetings and fostering links within the Italian corporate community.
Mr. Fumo, the head of the chamber’s local chapter, said it will build on the momentum that Mr. Kurtz and many Italian companies have initiated, pointing to a healthy membership roster that includes industrial players like SCM Group, Benzi, WAM Inc., Elitron, Aquafil, FAE and more, along with food purveyors like the Atlanta Pizza Truck, Baraonda and Antica Posta, among many others.
Mr. Fumo estimates the Italian community to be at only about 3,000 people in Georgia, but the number belies its impact.
“Hopefully we are here to stay and to grow into the future and to represent the Italian community in an important state.”