With a vast need for both infrastructure investment and venture capital, Atlanta shouldn’t be returning to the same wells for funds to fuel its rise as “the next global hub.”
Instead, if it wants to reach its potential, the city should be more innovative in its approach to capital markets. That involves looking around the world — either to foreign private-equity firms, mammoth Asian companies with venture arms or sovereign wealth funds looking to diversify their portfolios.
That’s the assessment of Jagdish Sheth, a longtime marketing expert and chaired professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School who is bullish on Atlanta’s future, thanks to its geography, talent base and mix of industrial clusters from automotive to logistics to research and development hubs.
But while he’s unapologetically positive about the city, he’s also worried that Atlanta isn’t aggressive enough in touting its assets and pursuing a global — rather than regional — destiny.
“I think we have taken for granted what we have. We are complacent,” Dr. Sheth said during a World Affairs Council of Atlanta luncheon Feb. 27. “We have the ingredients but no chutzpah. Atlanta will be discovered by somebody. Why don’t we discover ourselves and move forward?”
To start, Dr. Sheth said that President Donald Trump’s plans for an infrastructure spending spree could be complemented by foreign capital in new ways.
With the centers of wealth in the global economy shifting, Atlanta no longer has to sit back on its heels, relying on small-time municipal bonds or waiting for the federal government to pony up.
“There is plenty of capital there if you know how to attract it here,” Dr. Sheth said. “What you need is a massive influx of capital by one or two cities, or the countries in the world that are likely to bet on the future of Atlanta.”
China’s One Belt, One Road project may not yet extend to the Americas, but it has already begun to bid on big projects in the U.S. like a high-speed rail network in California. Major sovereign wealth funds like Saudi Arabia are looking for safe places to park their cash.
Inviting these outside forces would mean “growing the financial pie,” instead of playing political games over existing pools of money for projects like MARTA expansion, the discussion of which prompted Dr. Sheth’s response.
“Don’t count on our own investment money, or just public-private partnerships here,” Dr. Sheth said of transit development. “If you open up to the global infrastructure builders and providers, I think it’s going to happen much sooner.”
The same goes for venture capital, where Atlanta should learn from and interact with other hub cities like Singapore and Dubai, which have used government-backed capital to grow their logistics hubs and tech scenes.
Companies like Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant pouring its $93 billion Vision Fund into disruptors like Uber should be on the radar, as should China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba.
“I’m intentionally using these names because they are not in our positive mindset — or in our mindset. I can hear names out of England or names out of Germany. That’s where the difference comes. We always target the same venture capitalists who are based in Silicon Valley,” Dr. Sheth said.
All that aside, he does believe Atlanta has a strong shot at landing the headquarters of another domestic e-commerce giant: Amazon.
In a customarily wide-ranging talk, Dr. Sheth recounted many themes he’s preached before: Atlanta becoming the center of the South’s growth in the automotive sector, the city’s move up the logistics value chain and the advantage of its many research universities. Diversity, he said, will also be a calling card going forward, with Atlanta being able to use local relationships to attract global investment.
All this will only burnish Atlanta’s reputation if the city is focused and has “catalysts, champions” for its global outreach.