The picture may be murkier these days, but company and industry representatives at a Macon trade and investment symposium still believe that in 2020, Georgia has more to gain than to lose in engaging with the global economy.
During the Jan. 16 forum at Wesleyan College organized by the law offices of Christopher N. Smith and Global Atlanta, four speakers addressed head-on the challenges they’ve faced navigating the world’s ever-growing complexities, while remaining optimistic about their growth paths.
Jennifer Tipping, director of global business development for Pain Care Labs, said the company has winced as tariffs for its mostly China-made medical devices have fluctuated every quarter amid a trade war.
Some have urged the company — unhelpfully — to diversify its supply chain, but it’s not that simple with products that require certain FDA approvals and other manufacturing certifications.
“It’s not easy to set up your supply chain period, under any circumstances, and it’s much more difficult when you’re planning against uncertainty and unpredictability, and that’s really what we’ve had for the last couple years,” Ms. Tipping said.
Tariff compliance has tied up lots of capital — monetary and human — as staff have spent days figuring out how to categorize imports to avoid higher levies.
“We have literally found thousands of dollars in savings from 2019, but we’ve had to spend a lot of time and work really hard and become subject matter experts. We don’t want to be experts in customs and tariffs, but we’ve had to develop that expertise,” Ms. Tipping said.
Still, on the sales side, Pain Care Labs’ Buzzy, which provides needle pain relief through cold and vibration, and other products have taken off in overseas markets. And traveling to trade shows like MEDICA in Dusseldorf, Germany, has been rewarding both professionally and personally, with clients met via email becoming real-world friends, she added.
Irving Tissue has set up its massive operation in Macon to avoid similar sourcing snafus, but it doesn’t buy its major input — pulp — from here in Georgia, which happens to be one of the leading forestry states in the nation.
Instead, Irving brings pulp down on rail from the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where the vertically integrated J.D. Irving companies own large forest tracts.
Rail infrastructure was one necessity, along with power, water and natural gas, that helped the company whittle down its prospect sites via an “NCAA tournament” process that started with 65 and ended up with a final few, all in the Southeast U.S.
“Tissue manufacturing is regional. It doesn’t ship very well. It cubes out before it weights out, so it’s a lot of trucks. You really need to be manufacturing close to your consumers and customers,” said Brian Solheim, the plant manager.
Workforce is an area where Macon stood out. Company officials deemed Central Georgia Technical College a suitable training ground for workers, and more than 20,000 applications flooded in for the first $470 million phase of the factory. After 2,000 interviews, 200 positions were awarded, meaning applicants only had a 1 percent chance at getting a job.
So far, the cream of the crop have performed well, as have sales, giving Irving’s leadership the confidence to “double down” with a new $400 million investment even before the first is over the “startup curve,” Mr. Solheim said.
“It was designed into the plan, but I don’t think anybody realized it would be as fast as it was. That was based on the success of the original investment and startup. Everything for the most part went to plan,” he said.
That’s on the operational side, but there were some cross-cultural hurdles. Since the vice president of human resources had no American credit history, he was being sent credit card applications in the $500 range, “like a college student.” Mr. Solheim sees that as a business opportunity: helping expatriates navigate the process of settling into a new community.
Japanese companies know that process well, as more than 500 companies have put down roots in Georgia alone in the 40 years since the pioneering Japanese factories came to the South. Zipper maker YKK, which set up a factory in Macon in the 1970s and remains a force in its corporate community, was just one of those.
Japan’s new consul general in Atlanta, Kazuyuki Takeuchi, said he was pleasantly surprised to see the vibrancy of the relationship during events that awaited him soon after arriving in September to his first U.S. posting.
He gave out more than 200 business cards at one event alone: the 42nd annual meeting of the Southeast U.S. Japan Alliance conference in Savannah in October, where his ambassador was a keynote speaker. Before that, he marveled at the local interest in JapanFest.
“My first two days pumped me up with energy for my mission,” he said during the panel discussion, having traveled down to Macon from Atlanta.
Especially during the tense trade negotiations that have tested U.S.-Japan ties, Mr. Takeuchi sees the role of his more than 45-year-old consulate as bringing down the political and economic aspects of the relationship to a third layer: people.
“Our job is to make the third-layer relationships between the two more lively,” he said, predicting that a limited U.S.-Japan trade deal that took effect Jan. 1 will be the first step in a longer negotiation over thorny issues like automotive and agricultural trade.
Ironing out wrinkles and connecting dots for Georgia companies is one reason the state’s Centers of Innovation program exists. Under the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the centers focus on key sectors and help connect companies with resources and expertise.
Amy Hudnall leads the center devoted to Georgia’s largest export category: aerospace. She says that “planes and parts” are a huge part of the state’s global business story, from defense contractors (Lockheed Martin) and private jet makers (Gulfstream) selling abroad, to foreign investors arriving to conduct maintenance or supply giants like Boeing or Airbus, both of which have factories in the South.
Her job is mainly about helping provide technical assistance and personal connections for collaborative projects that benefit the state. One recent example was Thrush Aircraft, which selected a GE engine platform made in the Czech Republic that needed to be certified by the FAA. The center helped build a testing program at Middle Georgia State University, which has a strong school of aviation. Albany, Ga.-based Thrush got the approval, saved some money and added $1 million in payroll to support assembly-line upgrades.
Beyond planes, other categories in the sector are also growing, from private space flight and satellite launches to unmanned aerial vehicles.
“That is a huge area. Georgia has got a lot of strengths in robotics. Whether it’s at Mercer or Georgia Tech or mechatronics at Kennesaw State or manufacturing engineering at Georgia Southern, we have a lot of capability there, and that is becoming a real growth area,” Ms. Hudnall said.
Now in its second year, the Global Trade and Investment Symposium drew nearly 100 attendees from more than 15 Georgia counties to Wesleyan, a women’s college known particularly for its history with China.
Vivia Fowler, the school’s president, provided welcome remarks focusing on the importance of its engagement with the world.
Christopher N. Smith, the Macon attorney who sponsored the event and also serves as the honorary consul of Denmark in Georgia, closed out the event, which was followed by a networking reception. Global Atlanta provided the moderator for the discussion.
To be added to the list to hear about next year’s events, email Global Atlanta here.