Elizabethtown, N.C. – April 30, 2013. Anchored by a deepwater port, one-stop passenger air service to most of the world’s major business centers and a solid base of existing international firms, Southeastern North Carolina is no stranger to foreign direct investment (FDI), the cash and companies flowing across the globe in search of market access, raw materials and profitable production sites. But the 11-county region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the North Carolina Sandhills is well positioned to draw more attention from global investors according to a recent study by North Carolina’s Southeast Regional Economic Development Partnership (“N.C. Southeast”), which plans to launch a strategy to attract more FDI to the region.
“The immediate focus of the study was on getting a firm understanding of companies’ perspectives and the specific factors they use in making region-to-region comparisons when weighing investment options and to understand the region’s competitive positioning in launching a credible FDI strategy,” explains Steve Yost, President at N.C. Southeast. As part of the study, N.C. Southeast surveyed existing international businesses in the Southeast, assembled best practices in FDI promotion by economic development organizations in the U.S., and analyzed global investment trends as they relate to Southeastern North Carolina’s leading industry “clusters” such as building-products, alternative energy, value-added agribusiness and advanced manufacturing.
Economic data and qualitative input was compiled working closely with UNC Wilmington, the N.C. Department of Commerce, the N.C. State Ports Authority, the N.C. Biotechnology Center and other partners and allies.
Integrating regional economies with the global marketplace is a critical success factor for economic development organizations working to replace the low-skilled jobs with better-paying opportunities tied to innovation and global markets. “In these times of slower U.S. growth and changing international competitiveness, smart economic development groups are finding ways to grow their economies by being globally active,” explains Ted Abernathy, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, a public policy think-tank based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “It is all about attracting global capital and investments to create local jobs.”
Local economic developers are encouraged by the findings of N.C. Southeast’s international analysis and eager to embark on the regional FDI strategy. “We believe it will be valuable to the region and the counties,” says John Swope, economic development director for Sampson County. Swope chairs the Southeast’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG), a panel of state and local economic development partners and allies that guides N.C. Southeast’s job-creation strategies. At its annual planning session in February, the TAG voted unanimously to endorse the FDI initiative. The high cost of international promotion and marketing makes it difficult for single counties such as Sampson to go it alone when competing with high-profile destinations such as Atlanta and Houston in attracting foreign dollars and businesses. Uniting around a regional vision enables them to aggregate assets and pool resources. “We could not do this kind of marketing on a county-by-county basis,” Swope says.
Several of Sampson County’s largest employers are among the 58 foreign-owned firms operating some 75 separate facilities in Southeastern North Carolina. Switzerland-based Schindler Elevator Corporation manufactures escalator systems at its 200-employee plant in Clinton. Hanson Brick, part of Germany’s HeidelbergCement AG, operates a production facility near Roseboro. Proximity to the Port of Wilmington was a pivotal factor behind the selection of Sampson County by Aludisc, LLC, in 2006. Venezuelan investors established the company, which supplies aluminum containers for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, automobile, food and beverage products.
Other prominent international companies operating in the region include Nitta Gelatin (Cumberland County), a Japanese manufacturer of Collagen Peptides; IKAWorks (New Hanover County), a German manufacturer of industrial mixing equipment; FCC North Carolina (Scotland County), a unit of Japanese auto components maker F.C.C. Company Ltd.; and Unilever NV (Hoke County), the Netherlands-based global consumer staples giant. Over half the foreign-owned business operations in Southeastern North Carolina involve manufacturing, the survey by N.C. Southeast found.
Convenient access to Eastern U.S. consumer markets accounts for the presence of much of the region’s existing FDI. Business-cost differentials also make the Southeast Region attractive vis-à-vis many foreign business locations. The study revealed that the Southeast Region can showcase lucrative operating-cost advantages based on affordable labor, logistics and utilities. Educational institutions also stand ready to facilitate the arrival of international businesses – and support their success once here. Gary Miller, chancellor of UNC Wilmington, cites his campus’s globally oriented “knowledge assets” as evidence that foreign firms will find the region a hospitable destination. “Going forward, UNCW’s international connections will open the door for additional global business opportunities, building on strong programs like the International MBA in the Cameron School of Business and the Certified Global Business Professional training available through the Swain Center for Business & Economic Services, as well as programs in other UNCW schools and colleges,” Miller says. “We will continue to partner with North Carolina’s Southeast and others in the region to grow the regional economy and connect it to the world.”
For the FDI outreach effort to succeed, the region’s private-sector leaders must also play a role – offering ideas, contacts, advocacy and financial support. Jeff Etheridge, former Southeast Regional president at BB&T Bank, believes the well-researched blueprint will spark interest from the business community. “N.C. Southeast’s global marketing initiative is based on sound data and a sober assessment of where the low-hanging fruit is,” Etheridge says. “It builds on the international assets that are already here and is just the kind of plan savvy business leaders like to see.” Etheridge is among the business leaders advocating for stronger support from the private sector in the region’s economic development efforts. Existing businesses, for example, will share in benefits of a successful FDI campaign. “Opportunity in today's world doesn't stop at the shoreline,” Etheridge says. “Companies, investment, ideas and people move freely around the world, and our economic development marketing strategies must reflect that.”
N.C Southeast was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1994 to coordinate economic development marketing and job creation across 11 Southeastern counties. Since its founding, the public-private partnership’s work has led to the arrival of 113 companies in the region, the creation of 9,062 new jobs and the facilitation of $970,175,000 in economic investment. For additional information, visit www.ncse.org.