Georgia On My Mind: A Safe And Stable Place To Do Business

Thursday, May 1, 2008 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Kenneth C. Stewart, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Editor: Commissioner Stewart, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Stewart: I spent the majority of my career in big corporations in a variety of jobs from tax attorney to organizational effectiveness director. I also ran a number of different businesses, including manufacturing, sales and distribution. Just recently I came to work for state government in economic development.

Editor: Please give us an overview of the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD).

Stewart: The Georgia Department of Economic Development is the sales and marketing arm for the state of Georgia. The department focuses on three main areas: global commerce, which is the traditional economic development responsibility worldwide; the tourism responsibility for the state of Georgia; and what we call Team Entertainment, which is concerned with the film, video, music and digital entertainment marketplace.

Editor: And GDEcD's mission?

Stewart: We are charged with strategically delivering economic development throughout the state, and our efforts are measured by accretive jobs, investment and trade. Our priority operating principles include leveraging public-private partnerships and, no different than companies, bringing sound business and personal operating value into the workplace. It is all about bringing value to our customers. Whether government or business, measurable results always involve taking the value proposition to the customer and working cooperatively to leverage strengths. Our objective is to be the best economic development team in this worldwide market in which we compete.

Editor: As Georgia's chief marketing officer, I gather that, among other things, you and GDEcD act as a bridge between the private sector and government. How does this work?

Stewart: There is a commonality of purpose between what we do in GDEcD and the objectives of companies. Good jobs and a good quality of life result from bringing jobs and investment to the state. That, in turn, results in successful companies and satisfied shareholders and citizens. In carrying out the governor's directives, we seek to satisfy our primary constituency, the citizens of the state of Georgia.

Editor: Competition for new business is intense. What do you say to prospective investors about Georgia as an investment destination and place to do business?

Stewart: Like any business, the state must offer a value proposition to its customers. Our value proposition includes a superb logistics network, a young and growing workforce, low operating costs, international business connections, an outstanding business environment, and, taken all together, a great place to do business as compared to the competition.

With respect to logistics, Atlanta's Hartsville-Jackson Airport offers direct flights to five continents and 150 U.S. cities. We are within two hours flying time of 80 percent of all U.S. markets. We have a comprehensive transportation network in Georgia, including the Savannah ports, which are the fastest growing in the country, 5,000 miles of road network, the largest in the Southeast, and a population that is within a two-day truck haul of 80 percent of the population in the U.S. We are the fourth fastest-growing state in the country and we are located in the second fastest-growing region.

Another value attribute is our workforce. It is young and it is growing rapidly. We enjoy strong in-migration, amounting to some 100,000 people who move here annually from out-of-state and abroad. The "young and restless," the highly educated 25- to 34-year-olds, are attracted to Georgia and, above all, to Atlanta.

Operating costs are moderate, and they don't change much as we move through the business cycle. That makes Georgia not only affordable but very predictable in terms of value maintenance. The cost of living and housing is below the national average, and our tax rates for both businesses and individuals are comparatively low.

The last value attribute that I should mention is the global nature of Georgia. We constitute a new international business hub. More than 50 countries now have consular or bi-national chamber offices in the Atlanta area, and the state will have 11 international offices when our Beijing office is opened in about a month. If Georgia is looked at as a separate country, we would be the 20th largest economy in the world.

Editor: Where does inbound investment originate? Where is it coming from?

Stewart: Economic growth originates at home, from elsewhere in the country, and from across the world. International interest is certainly growing. About 60 percent of the current growth represents expansion on the part of Georgia enterprises or companies, and a large percentage of the balance is international. We are experiencing both domestic and international growth in Georgia.

Editor: You mentioned 11 international offices. Have you targeted specific regions for this kind of outreach?

Stewart: We are targeting rapidly growing economies. They are the ones looking for profitable and safe offshore destinations for foreign direct investment. Canada is Georgia's largest trading partner, and we have an office there. Mexico is also a very large trading partner, and we have an office there as well. We have a presence in Brazil, Chile, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Israel and Korea and Japan. And, as I say, we will open an office in Beijing in the next month or so. We are being very strategic in our growth both as to countries and companies.

Editor: With inbound investment, what steps does GDEcD take to open the door and keep it open? Tax incentives? Tax-exempt bond financing?

Help with zoning and planning issues?

Stewart: We are very competitive in Georgia with our offerings to potential investors, and this includes both a hard and a soft value proposition. All of the things you mention are available to the inbound investor. But under the soft value proposition we also offer some things that probably are unique. We have just hired an international business concierge. This is designed for international companies that often need support in attempting to navigate the cultural differences from their home country as they enter a new business environment. I believe we are the first state to take this step.

Editor: And the quality of life that Georgia offers to the employees of an inbound employer?

Stewart: When an individual moves to Georgia, typically they do not want to leave. Our quality of life is such that we combine in this new international capital a very sophisticated exposure to the performing arts, culture and education, museums and so on, and also a wonderful array of sports and entertainment. We offer a full range of attributes that attract people for their business and as individuals and families.

Editor: Would you tell us about the workforce and its educational attainments?

Stewart: Georgia is celebrated for the quality of its workforce. One of the principal drivers - and this is always of great interest to incoming employers - is a very extensive state university system. With 44,000 graduates per year, it is the fourth largest state university network in the country. In addition, we have an extensive technical college system, and there are 34 such institutions spread across the state.

Governor Perdue has sponsored a work-ready certification program that provides a continuing stream of workers qualified to meet the demands of the workplace. We also have what is called Quick Start, a program that provides trained workers who are ready to work from the day that a plant or other facility opens its doors.

Editor: Would you share with us some of the projects that GDEcD has undertaken recently?

Stewart: We talk about the large projects all the time, but we also enjoy considerable success with small and medium-sized businesses. On the large project side, the automobile company KIA recently came to us with a project that would create 2,500 jobs and an investment of 1.2 billion dollars. Their state-of-the-art facility is scheduled to open in 2009. We also have a number of top-tier suppliers who, together, will bring 3,500 additional jobs to the state in the near future. Several tier-two, -three and -four suppliers have also announced their intention to establish operations in Georgia

Just recently a number of Chinese and Indian companies have located in Georgia. There are several reasons for this - I have gone over them with you - but the principal ones concern a highly educated and trained workforce and a workplace culture that accommodates a diversity of individuals and cultures. We are far more international than some people might think.

The SANY Group, which is China's leading construction machinery manufacturer, has just announced its plans to open a facility here as has General Protecht, which manufactures electrical equipment. There are several other projects in the works of almost the same magnitude. We average about two delegations a month from China.

Editor: Please tell us your thoughts about the development of the Georgia economy over, say, the next five years.

Stewart: Needless to say, I am very upbeat about the Georgia economy. Our contribution is not insignificant because we are strategic in how we present Georgia and its economy to the world. We are focused on certain high value-added and strategic industries that offer the promise of sustainability for the state. These strategic industries or industry sectors include - although they are not limited to - advanced manufacturing, advanced communications, life sciences, including high tech and biotech, energy, transportation, and financial services. And, of course, we have agribusiness, which continues to be a strong part of the Georgia economy. We look for robust growth in all of these areas over the next five years.

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

Stewart: The future is very bright for Georgia. During times of uncertainty - and I think we are in one now - Georgia has proven itself to be a safe and stable place to do business. As the Georgia economy continues to grow more rapidly than those of other states and regions, we will continue to rely on a creative and highly motivated workforce and a business environment that we believe companies seek. We offer something for everyone, from large national and international enterprises to small, entrepreneurial start-ups.

There is some external corroboration for what we say about Georgia as a place to do business. Expansion Magazine ranked Georgia number one in the country on workforce training, and The Laffer Report rated us number one on fiscal policy. Site Selection Magazine ranked Georgia as number two in business environment. The Kauffman Foundation ranked us as number three in the country in entrepreneurial activity. CNBC has rated Georgia the fourth best state in which to do business, and the just-released Pew Report states that Georgia is one the best-managed states in the country. People agree that Georgia is an excellent place to invest and an excellent place to live.