Capital News Service
LANSING – Made in China? Not necessarily.
Oakland County’s efforts to diversity its economic base have attracted firms from countries other than China, Japan and South Korea – think Finland, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Nigeria and Sweden, for example.
“In Oakland County there’s a combination of people from different ethnic backgrounds and everyone seems to get along really well,” said Fatin Hawley, an export sales manager for Nigerian company Morpol Industrial Corp. “I definitely think that diverse backgrounds, depending on where your business is taking you, can really help.”
Morpol, located in West Bloomfield, provides engineering services, primarily for the oil and gas industry. Hawley’s father and uncle are the co-owners who brought it to Michigan.
Their story is only one example – in July 2010, the county reported being home to 859 foreign businesses representing 37 countries.
“We’re very aggressive in international attraction,” said Maureen Krauss, the county’s director of economic development and community affairs. “One of the things that I think has been impressive to people is how many people in Oakland County are employed by foreign firms.”
The attractions for foreign companies include an ongoing workforce development program, Krauss added. It helps retrain domestic workers to upgrade their skills to fit the needs of incoming companies.
Representatives from the county work with foreign companies already in the United States, in addition to traveling abroad to recruit new firms, she said. In the next year, trips to China, Italy, India and Japan are planned.
Krauss added that although the county has specific programs and strategies to persuade foreign businesses to relocate to the area, the community’s assets often do much of the work.
“We have a highly educated workforce – 44 percent of our adults have a bachelor’s degree or greater,” she said. “The national average is about 24 percent.”
Krauss added that an already established foreign presence, a well-developed network of suppliers and a cultural support system help companies grow.
“For instance, there’s a Japan school,” she said. “It supports Japanese families that might be coming over here, helps their kids maintain their language. There’s a German school, there’s a Swedish school. There are a lot of support businesses that help companies focus on the business aspect and not worry so much about the personal aspect of bringing people over.”
Opus International Consultants Inc. in West Bloomfield is another example of a foreign firm from an unexpected country now comfortably settled in the county. The engineering and planning consulting company is based in New Zealand.
“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” said Jeffrey Bagdade, the vice president of Opus’s Detroit-area office. “They’ve got more than 90 offices and more than 2,500 staff around the world and this is the first U.S. office.”
Opportunities are often associated with automobiles, but Krauss said her team also helps companies expand into other fields once they’re here.
For example, India-based Tata Group originally came to Michigan to be close to the automotive industry.
“Since we first met them several years ago, they now have five different divisions in Oakland County,” Krauss said. “A company may have come here for an automotive perspective, but when we get to know the parent company, get to know these large organizations, there might be a component that works on electric vehicles that makes sense here, or the wind industry or medical device industry.”
Tata is located in both Troy and Novi, and continues to work cooperatively with the county, according to Daniel Saad, its director of communications.
“There really isn’t any better place to be,” Saad said. “Just a week ago, the North American headquarters stayed within Novi. We moved from one facility that we’d been in for more than 16 years to a new building here in Novi. The decision was made to remain here and we literally just moved an eighth of a mile east.”
Retention of established companies is another key factor in the county’s plan to attract new firms.
“The best-selling feature I have when talking to a foreign firm is the list of who is already here from their country,” Krauss said.
Oakland County is not alone in its efforts to attract foreign businesses – state government is also actively involved in recruitment and development.
Mike Shore, vice president of communications for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said Gov. Jennifer Granholm has traveled abroad 10 times during her tenure to draw foreign investment to the state.
Shore said the trips resulted in 47 foreign companies locating in Michigan, creation of more than 20,000 jobs and more than $1.8 billion in total investment.
“By definition, the marketplace today is global,” Shore said. “If you’re going to be a player in any significant way, you are going to be talking to companies from overseas.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.