Southern Automotive Conference brings industry leaders to Alabama

Southern Automotive Conference brings industry leaders to Alabama
Workers assemble an SUV at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa County. Alabama is hosting this year's Southern Automotive Conference in Birmingham this week. (Mercedes-Benz)

Key auto industry decision makers from across the Southeast and beyond will be in Alabama this week to learn about new innovations, share solid business practices and build stronger relationships with their colleagues.

The Southern Automotive Conference, which kicks off Wednesday at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, features a lineup of industry experts including executives from Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Nissan, General Motors, Kia and many suppliers and support firms.

Gov. Kay Ivey also is scheduled to speak, along with educators, researchers and consultants.

Speakers will discuss leadership, entrepreneurship, workforce trends, emerging technologies, cyber security and a host of other topics.

The three-day event, expected to draw about 1,000 people, comes at a booming time for Alabama’s auto industry.

The state’s auto production climbed to a new record high in 2016, as workers built more than 1 million vehicles. Engine production, meanwhile, reached about 2 million, and automakers and suppliers continue to expand their operations here.

In the past month alone, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Autocar have announced new investments in Alabama totaling more than $1.2 billion and 1,400 jobs.

The projects include electric vehicle production and a battery plant for the Mercedes facility in Tuscaloosa County, while Autocar’s heavy-duty truck assembly operation in Jefferson County is adding a new dimension to the state industry.

Toyota’s expansion will bring the automaker’s next-generation technology to its Huntsville engine plant.

Targeting millennials

The Southern Automotive Conference lineup is the strongest in its history, said Ron Davis, president of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association, which is presenting this year’s conference.

“This is the 10-year celebration of the Southern Automotive Conference, and we’re excited that we’re hosting it in Alabama,” he said. “Our objective is to be very impactful and informative. We want every attendee to go home with information that helps them run their business better.”

One key topic will be the role of millennials in the auto industry workforce.

“We’re engaging millennials throughout the conference. We want to show the young people that are working in the industry. Millennials will be introducing speakers and telling their stories, and there’s also a video highlighting the great jobs for young people in the industry,” Davis said.

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the conference is a great opportunity to showcase the state’s success to industry leaders.

“Alabama’s auto manufacturing success story is nothing short of remarkable,” he said. “Since Mercedes began producing vehicles here 20 years ago, and many others followed, the skilled workers of this state have exceeded expectations time and time again.

“We look forward to watching them reach even greater heights as they deliver high-quality vehicles, engines and components to customers around the world,” Canfield added.

Harnessing synergies

The conference also is a chance to show off Birmingham’s entertainment scene. Networking events, featuring local music, food and craft beer, are planned at Regions Field, Uptown and Barber Motorsports Park.

Conference participants will include representatives of automakers, suppliers and other support businesses. Educators and professionals involved in workforce and economic development also will attend.

And while the majority of the guests will be from the Southeastern United States, others are coming from elsewhere in the country. There’s also a large contingent traveling from Japan.

The Southern Automotive Conference started as an effort to bring together the synergies of the Southeastern auto sector, Davis said. The automotive manufacturers associations in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee have rotated hosting duties each year, and in 2018, Georgia will host it for the first time.

“What’s exciting is the interest level, and the ability to reach out to new people joining the industry,” he said. For example, just after the Autocar announcement, the conference planning team contacted the company, and now it is participating in the event.

Davis said he and his counterparts in the other states are friends who talk to each other weekly.

“We’re helping each other grow the industry,” he said. “It’s all about connecting and forming partnerships and friendships that cross state lines.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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