Korean trip holds promise

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2003

Many business partners tend to trade with familiar acquaintances, and when delegates from Covington County returned Tuesday from an overseas trip in which relationships were developed with Hyundai representatives, a lasting impression of our community was made.

"The highlight of the trip was the meetings that took place with individuals," Covington County Commission Chairman Greg White said. "There were meetings with CEOs and other executives and representatives of the company, about seven or eight total."

White and about 50 other members representing Covington County and Alabama attended the week-long trip, which began last Monday. In addition to White, Covington County residents who attended the meeting included House Speaker Seth Hammett, Andalusia Mayor Earl Johnson, Covington Electric Cooperative Manager Ed Short, and Economic Development President Tucson Roberts. They all accompanied Governor Bob Riley to attend the southeast USA/Korea conference in Seoul. Representatives from six other southern states attended the conference to focus on Korean investment in the US, highlighting Hyundai's recent investment in Alabama.

"We've taken the initiative to open some trade opportunities for our agricultural community as well as manufacturing," Roberts said.

White added the relationships will be the key in bringing a piece of Hyundai to the county.

"We've been selling Covington County, and we've learned about their interest in Alabama," he said.

The one-on-one interactions with people made the difference, according to White.

"The Korean people were very hospitable and gracious," he said. "Seoul is a great city, progressive in every way. Furthermore, because of Hyundai's investment in Alabama and the positive press it has received, Alabama is well positioned in the Korean business community."

The county's competition with other neighboring counties for second-tier manufacturers will be tight, added White.

"As far as meetings with Hyundai suppliers go, we let them know we're interested," he said. "No negotiations to bring specific manufacturers took place. We met to present the county and the community, which should put us at the top of their list."

Personal interactions, which White said are uncommon in the business world, allowed a window of opportunity to open.

"Some business deals are done during one meal where neither partner gets to know the other," White said, in regards to the week-long conference.

Johnson, who agreed with White, said the length of the trip was necessary because of the long-term investment of the trade relations.

"It wasn't like there was a slap on the back and we exchanged business cards," Johnson said. "We had meaningful discussions and face-to-face meetings, some of which were arranged by Southeast Alabama Gas District Consultant Jim Brown.

"We had good discussions with the people from Hyundai, and we had a good response," he continued. "We got to sit down in a meeting room with a handful of people from the county and got to talk with individuals (from the company) for hours at a time."

Johnson compared the relationships between the business executives to raising a child.

"Building relationships were the only way to do it," he added. "We went to where they are and tried to do the things that would bring them to the community. We visited the people as a long-term thing, and it's not like you can build good trading ties with the company for six months and then quit. It's like raising children - a lot of time must be invested for something good to come from it."

Even if a second-tier manufacturer does not come to the community, many jobs have been brought to the area, according to Johnson.

"If not Hyundai, we'll be successful with something else," he said. "There have been nearly 3,000 jobs to come to the county over the past few years without Hyundai. Our industry is not limited to car manufacturing."

Some of the extent of the trading relations with Korean delegates include agriculture, Johnson added.

"For the first time, Andalusia area representatives met at an embassy of another country to discuss exporting farm products to foreign customers," he said. "We met with individuals and pointed the community in the right direction."

The relationships will also carry added weight to the value of products, according to Johnson.

"Not only do we wish to export, but we developed relations to add to their value," he said.

A tour of three assembly plants was also well received by Hyundai executives, said Johnson. But Covington and other counties in south Alabama face a heated competition to bring Hyundai to their neck of the woods, White said.

"The competition will be great," he said.