Q2 | 2023
Atlanta’s large and diverse consular corps plays a critical role in economic development in Georgia—helping international companies make a soft landing in their new home
By Katja Ridderbusch
When Steyn Heskes came to Atlanta in October of 2022, he was introduced to what he now knows is Georgia’s most powerful economic development tool: Southern hospitality. Ironically, it was extended by one of his own countrymen.
Heskes had moved from his native Netherlands to lead the North American data and cloud division of Xebia. The Dutch digital B2B consultancy is headquartered in Hilversum in North Holland, and it has 22 offices in 13 countries and approximately 6,300 employees worldwide. Soon after arriving in Atlanta, he met with Jacob “Jaap” Veerman, consul general of the Netherlands. Within days, a flurry of information, invitations, introductions, and ideas landed in Heskes’s inbox and on his voicemail.
“The consulate general opened so many doors for us,” says the IT executive with a business degree from Oxford University and expat experience living and working in Mexico City. The warm welcome from the Dutch diplomats and their local partners makes him and his approximately 100 Georgia-based Xebia colleagues “feel that we are at the right place at the right time,” says Heskes, looking at the Buckhead skyline from his 11th floor office.
Heskes and Veerman knew some of the same people back home, but that’s not why the diplomat facilitated a smooth arrival for Xebia. It’s the modus operandi—and part of the mission—that the Netherlands consulate general vows to pursue.
“We call it economic diplomacy,” says Veerman. The representation’s main role—besides providing consular services to Dutch citizens in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina—is to support U.S. companies that aim to do business in the Netherlands. It also helps Dutch enterprises and research institutions that want to bring their products, services, and knowledge to the Southeastern United States. “Our focus is on sustainability, innovation, and digitalization,” Veerman adds.
Global manufacturing, IT, and retail investments hub
The newest of the 26 career consulates in Atlanta, the Dutch consulate opened in 2019 with an eye on economic development—not surprising, given the United States and the Netherlands’ long and deep economic ties. Holland is one of the largest investors in the U.S., supporting nearly 1 million jobs. Close to 300 Dutch facilities, employing more than 10,700 people, operate in Georgia.
It’s not just the Netherlands. The business development platform BusinessWise lists more than 3,500 Georgia facilities with foreign parent companies, employing an estimated 177,000 workers. That makes Georgia one of the leading states in the U.S. for direct foreign investment.
In 2022, 41 percent of investment in the Peach State—$8.6 billion—came from internationally owned companies. The top five sources of foreign direct investment were Korea, Germany, Japan, France, and the Netherlands. Among the leading global businesses in Georgia are Korean automotive and automotive part manufacturers Kia and Hyundai; Yamaha Motor Manufacturing from Japan; ASOS, one of the world’s leading online fashion and beauty retailers from the UK; Nestlé Purina, a subsidiary of Nestlé Switzerland; and German-owned Mercedes-Benz USA, Porsche Cars North America, and pharma giant Boehringer Ingelheim.
Many international firms in Georgia are involved in advanced manufacturing, including the growing electronic vehicle (EV) sector, aerospace, agriculture, and life sciences. The state is also rapidly becoming an information technology hub, especially for fintech companies and other sectors of the digital economy.
That’s why Xebia, the Dutch IT consultancy, moved some of its core executives to Atlanta, rather than to traditional tech capitals such as New York or San Francisco. “Atlanta is one of the new tech magnets that attract a lot of talent,” says Heskes.
There are plenty of other reasons why companies gravitate to Georgia. The cost of living is still affordable, quality of life is good, and there’s excellent higher education with universities such as Emory, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Morehouse College. Atlanta is the headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and UPS. The state is also home to the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Because of Georgia’s role as an economic powerhouse, the state’s protocol division, which coordinates all diplomatic relations between the State of Georgia and other countries, is organized under the Georgia Department of Economic Development. In most other states, protocol is part of the governor’s office. The setup in Georgia makes perfect sense, says Nico Wijnberg, the State’s chief of protocol and director of international relations. He describes his role as “being the spider in the web” of Georgia’s diversified global activities.
Wijnberg and his team are liaisons between foreign governments and the State of Georgia. They help more than 70 government organizations from around the world—career and honorary consulates, trade missions, and investment agencies—connect with chambers of commerce; businesses; and state, county, and local authorities. They also organize foreign delegation visits to Georgia to showcase the state’s myriad offerings, from its largest cities to an increasingly robust rural workforce and infrastructure. “The best way to describe economic development is in one word, and that is relationships,” says Wijnberg.
Watching markets, tailoring to trends
Working with Atlanta’s consular corps doesn’t mean applying a cookie-cutter strategy. The consular scene is highly diverse, and every consulate takes a different approach to economic development, says Wijnberg. It has to do with the relationship between the U.S. and the foreign country and how the respective consulate is set up in Atlanta.
Some countries, like the UK and the Netherlands, also have government trade and investment missions attached to their diplomatic representation. The Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA), for example, facilitates direct investments by North American companies into the Netherlands. It has been based in Atlanta since 1997—long before the consulate opened its doors—and now shares office space with the Netherlands consulate. NFIA also assists the consulate’s efforts to provide Dutch companies with “a soft landing in Atlanta and in Georgia,” says Boudewijn Barth, head of NFIA in Atlanta.
Consular support for companies and organizations ranges from technical to strategic, adds Veerman. It includes contacts with site selection experts, financial institutions, immigration attorneys, tax consultants, insurance brokers, real estate agents, recruitment agencies, and other Dutch companies that are willing to share their experience doing business in Georgia. The consulate also provides sector reports and market analyses.
Compared to the Netherlands’ consular office, the German consulate general in Atlanta plays “more of a supporting role in the economic development arena,” says Consul General Melanie Moltmann, despite the fact that Germany has a substantial economic footprint in Georgia. With more than 510 German-owned businesses, the country ranks second to the United Kingdom for foreign investment in the state.
The consulate’s main function is public diplomacy. As far as economic relations go, “our job is to observe, inform, and connect,” Moltmann adds. The diplomats observe where the market is going, which industries are booming, and which may be a good match for German companies. They also inform the German government about trends in the six states the consulate represents, which, besides Georgia, are Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Finally, it helps facilitate connections between institutions and businesses in Germany and the southeastern United States.
The consulate closely watches developments in mobility and the digital economy, logistics, aerospace, agriculture, and life sciences, but also the movies and tourism industries. One of Germany’s most successful exports is workforce training, especially the so-called dual educational system, where trainees split their time between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job training at a company. German-style vocational programs are designed to build a highly skilled workforce in manufacturing and other tech-oriented careers and to create longer retention rates.
In Georgia, one of several dual apprenticeship programs is coordinated by the Atlanta-based German American Chamber of Commerce in the Southeastern U.S. (GACC South), a private, nonprofit membership organization representing German industry and trade in the region. The program has been rolled out in five Georgia counties (Coweta, Newton, Spalding, Jackson, and Hart). Most of the 24 companies that have participated since the program’s launch in 2016 are medium-sized firms from manufacturing sectors such as automotive and industrial equipment suppliers, including Kason Industries and Solmax. So far, more than 55 apprentices have graduated from the program.
Moltmann works closely with the chamber in promoting German-style workforce training. She says she’s frequently speaking with colleges, high schools, and businesses in Georgia that are interested in implementing the program “but still have many questions.” The dual vocational training takes longer than in the U.S.—up to three years—and the company hosting the apprentice carries a large portion of the costs.
It’s important “that we provide as much clear, concise, and comprehensive information as we can,” Moltmann says.
The dual apprenticeship program is an example of consulate-chamber cooperation tying into the main mission of economic development. “And that is job creation,” says Wijnberg, Georgia’s protocol chief.
Empowering women entrepreneurs
Job creation is also very much on the mind of Javier Díaz de León, consul general of Mexico, who, due to his tenure of seven years, serves as the dean of the Atlanta consular corps. The trade volume between Georgia and Mexico totaled $18 billion last year, making Mexico Georgia’s second-largest trade partner, behind Canada. Supply chain manufacturing—automotive parts, machinery, wires, and computers—mainly drives trade.
The Mexican consulate general in Atlanta serves Mexican citizens in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Díaz de León says the consulate’s mission is mainly political and diplomatic. A small team, backed by the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in cooperation with other organizations in Georgia, supports small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs.
Working in close collaboration with the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta, the Coalition of Latino Leaders (a community organization in Dalton, Georgia), as well as Arizona State University, the Mexican consulate has launched an initiative for women entrepreneurs called Mexicana Emprende. The program, funded primarily by Mexico, gives Mexican businesswomen in Georgia and other Southern states access to a nine-week course covering accounting, strategic business planning, marketing, and staffing.
Mexicana Emprende shows that economic development is a “two-way street,” says Díaz de León. The program helps Mexican businesses and supports economic growth in Georgia. “Georgia benefits by way of these Mexican entrepreneurs being successful.”
Díaz de León agrees with Georgia’s protocol chief Nico Wijnberg that economic development is all about building relationships. It’s not only relationships between the consulates, state and local governments, and businesses, but also within Atlanta’s consular corps, which meets every two months for a networking luncheon.
Often, those relationships facilitate cross-border business. The Mexican diplomat gives an example from the automotive sector. Kia, the Korean car manufacturer, has major plants in West Point, Georgia, and Monterrey, Mexico. Over the years, Kia suppliers from Mexico were able to attract business in Georgia and vice versa. Several Korean suppliers were also able to use the Georgia-Mexico connection by expanding into both markets. It’s a multiple win-win, Díaz de León says.
Relationship building across state and country lines also happens during foreign delegation visits, and consulates are the point of contact for the Georgia Department of Economic Development when organizing those visits, says Wijnberg.
In the summer of 2022, a 300-person delegation from Belgium, headed by Princess Astrid, sister of King Philippe, visited the United States and made a two-day stop in Atlanta for a series of meetings and talks with government officials and business leaders. Dubbed the “Princess Delegation,” the visit was the largest international trade mission to Georgia since the 1996 Olympics.
Such visits are about so much more than site selection, says Wijnberg. They are about making new connections for future partnerships. A year later, “our conversations from the Belgian delegation are still ongoing,” he adds.
Cultivating a positive culture
Economic development also means exploring and helping create a sociopolitical, cultural, and research environment where business can thrive, says Veerman, the Netherlands consul general. Just recently, his office facilitated cooperation between the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Design Academy Eindhoven in the south Netherlands, which is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading design schools. “That’s also part of economic diplomacy,” he says.
For Steyn Heskes, with the Dutch digital consultancy Xebia, Atlanta and Georgia have offered a sense of belonging—a sense of home. People are easy to communicate with, he says. After a few months of living and working in Atlanta, he finds the culture in the South to be “more relational and laid-back” than in many other parts of the country. “To me, it just feels more aligned with Dutch culture,” he adds.
That’s one key reason why Xebia has decided to move its global headquarters to Atlanta in the coming years. Another is the rise of Georgia as a digital technology hub. “We really feel the momentum here,” Heskes says. Momentum, eased by Southern hospitality.
The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea opened its offices in Atlanta in 1971. It serves Korean citizens living in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Last year, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), the Korean government’s trade and investment agency, opened its eighth U.S. office in Atlanta.
Georgia is home to more than 100 Korean-owned companies, which employ more than 9,400 Georgians. In 2006, Korean automaker Kia made one of the biggest foreign investments in the history of Georgia by establishing a production facility in West Point. Hyundai Motor Group is currently building an electric vehicle (EV) and battery manufacturing plant west of Savannah.
The British Consulate General in Atlanta serves British citizens in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The UK has maintained a consular presence in Georgia since 1804. In 2011, the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) opened an Atlanta office to promote trade and foreign direct investment between the UK and Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
The British-American Business Council of Georgia (BABC-GA), one of the largest transatlantic business networks, works closely with the consulate. Its mission is to support economic growth between the Southeastern U.S. and the UK. There are currently at least 580 British facilities operating in the state, employing more than 22,000 Georgians.
The Canadian Consulate General in Atlanta is one of 16 Canadian diplomatic offices in the U.S. Established in 1973, it represents the Canadian government in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The consulate promotes business development, investment, tourism, culture, and information exchange between Canada and the Southeastern United States. Canada is the No. 1 export market for the United States and also for Georgia. There are at least 325 Canadian facilities operating in the state, and they currently employ more than 33,000 Georgians.
© GaBiz Magazine / Katja Ridderbusch