Atlanta And The Southeast: Magnets For Business

Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 00:00

Editor: Thank you for agreeing once more to be interviewed by our publication. Today, we would like to focus on Atlanta and the Southeast. But first review for our new readers your practice area and your responsibilities in the firm.

Thomas: I serve as the partner-in-charge of the Atlanta office. It is a full-service office of the firm and, at approximately 150 lawyers, ranks in the top seven law firms in Atlanta. In addition to that responsibility, my roots are as a public company M&A lawyer, but I currently spend the bulk of my practice time on corporate governance. I serve as the chair of the firm's global corporate governance practice. It is a mainstream practice dealing with corporate decision- making and board and shareholder processes for clients not only in the United States, but also in the UK and across Europe and into Asia.

Editor: The Southeast attracts many foreign businesses that are unacquainted with the special emphasis we place on good governance and compliance. How important is it for them to be brought up to speed, and what is your role in this?

Thomas: Principles of good governance do not begin and end at any country's boundary. Though the rules may vary, no matter where located, companies' leaders should work for the long-term enhancement of the business, should act with transparency, should be fairly compensated and should not take advantage of their position. Management of international companies with which I have had the privilege to work recognize these principles even as they become reluctantly familiar with U.S. standards - a more heavily regulated environment, and one in which private litigation plays a significant role. I find that once international business leaders are informed of the drivers of those circumstances, they are comfortable with following U.S. standards and processes. Management of international companies, just like domestic leaders, know that doing the right thing is the best way to assure that their businesses will yield long-term sustainable value.

Editor: What advantages accrue to your Atlanta office as a result of its situation in the Southeast? Why has Atlanta been so attractive as a business and financial center?

Thomas: Atlanta really is a gateway city as well as a major metropolis in its own right. It is the dominant and most vibrant city in the Southeast. With the world's busiest airport, it also is a gateway to the rest of the world. Atlanta has a surprisingly high number of North American headquarters of companies that are themselves domiciled overseas.

Editor: To what extent does your practice extend to counseling with respect to the business climate in other states in the Southeast region?

Thomas: We do not practice law in jurisdictions where we are not licensed; however, issues that are relevant to corporations making a decision on where to conduct business in the world, in the United States or in the Southeast are issues with which we are quite familiar. These include everything from tax considerations, to government incentives, to the state of tort reform, and to whether or not one jurisdiction is going to be better than another in terms of quality of life - educational and social opportunities, climate and ease of transportation.

We've been involved in all of those issues for a number of companies and, of course, we wouldn't hesitate to involve the relevant business development organizations and chambers of commerce throughout the region. The Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is incredibly successful here, and I'm proud to be associated with it. And of course, we spend just as much time attending to the needs of our good clients outside I-285, which is the perimeter highway around the city of Atlanta, as we do inside.

Editor: What types of businesses dominate the region?

Thomas: One of the strengths of the Southeast is that the region is not dependent on any single industry. We have all learned the value of diversification, and the Southeast has lived it. That said, the Southeast is surprisingly strong in the automotive industry. As early as the '80s Michelin and then BMW opened plants in South Carolina. Major automobile and auto parts manufacturers then moved into North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Of course, Georgia, too, has long been home to automobile and parts manufacturers.

Why the Southeast? Many manufacturers have found this region to be an incredibly promising place in which to locate their manufacturing facilities because of the high-quality workforce and the quality of life for their executives, managers and staff who move here.

Georgia and the other Southeastern states have a very pro-business climate, including right-to-work laws and continual efforts to stem abuses in products liability claims. Also, you can't discount the logistics and transportation piece of it. It is easy to get your products to market if your plant is located anywhere near the great interstate highway system found throughout the region, and the climate makes transportation accessible year round.

Editor: What other industries are dominant?

Thomas: In addition to the automotive industry, we see agriculture, food processing, tourism, and plastic and metal fabrication. There are 14 Fortune 500 companies based in Georgia, including, among others, such household names as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta, and UPS. A number of those were founded here.

Editor: How has transportation policy helped spur the growth of enterprises?

Thomas: Atlanta has a superior transportation system thanks to the vision of our city's leaders, who 50 years ago dedicated themselves to making our airport world class.

Editor: What is the attitude to diversity now in the region?

Thomas: Today, I believe that the Southeast's reputation lags behind its reality in this respect. Atlanta, by way of example, is rich with the contributions of various cultures in business, education, arts and food. Diversity is something that the Southeast region can and does celebrate. This goes back to when Atlanta's business leaders confronted the civil rights challenges that faced a number of other cities and dedicated themselves to welcoming all those who contribute to the growth of the city.

Editor: I gather that agriculture still plays a significant role in the region. Do you see this as affecting the prosperity and economic growth of the Southeast?

Thomas: Agriculture is on any list you see of activities important to Georgia and to the region. After all, we are called the Sunbelt. Agriculture continues to be important, and I don't see that changing since it is so closely tied to our climate and geography. We also have a number of industrial concerns that are dependent upon agriculture as the source of their business. AGCO, a Fortune 500 company that manufactures farm machinery, is one example.

Editor: What do Georgia and Atlanta do to attract business?

Thomas: There are a number of factors. Let's talk first about our agreeable climate. We did have an ice and snow storm that shut us down for a few days this winter. The city of Atlanta owns about ten snow plows, and most years we don't even bring them out of storage. But if one storm is so newsworthy, you understand just how rare it is. Our wonderful climate is a natural draw.

Also, it's a matter of geography. Many people are surprised to see how much of the population of the United States is reachable within a day's drive of Atlanta. I have mentioned the airport so I won't go into detail about that again, but our transportation infrastructure both in terms of the federal highway system and rail lines enables companies located in the Atlanta area to take full advantage of its accessible geography.

Georgia is not a state that goes to unsustainable extremes in offering the direct and personalized incentives that some other states do. However, we consider that Georgia remains highly competitive on factors that will not vaporize in a short period. These factors include a relatively low-tax environment (including some good tax exemptions and tax credits), our investment in a highly skilled workforce and a superior university system.

Georgia is rich in its university network, both private and public, including, among others, Georgia Tech, Emory University, Georgia State, the University of Georgia, Savannah College of Art and Design, Oglethorpe University, Kennesaw State University, the Atlanta University consortium (including the renowned Morehouse, Spellman and Clark Atlanta), and Agnes Scott College, all within metropolitan Atlanta. It is pretty remarkable the resources that are available here. As a result of this critical mass, there has been a burgeoning in the life-sciences and other high-tech businesses here in the Atlanta area. I happen to be affiliated with a public-private partnership called the Georgia Research Alliance, which is just another manifestation of how our state's political and business leaders work together to attract esteemed scholars in the life sciences and in technology. I am proud to serve on the board of that organization.

Editor: I gather that Georgia is very friendly to small business, which generates about 65 percent of new jobs in the typical economic recovery.

Thomas: Some of the statistics I have seen lately indicate that Georgia is better at growing small business than almost any other state. Georgia ranks #1 in the U.S. for entrepreneurship and #6 as the best state to do business.

Editor: You have talked about the attractions of Atlanta to businesses. What does it offer to the people who work in those businesses?

Thomas: Atlanta is home to our country's longest continually operating professional ballet company. The Atlanta Ballet Company has a history of over 70 years of first-class performances. It just announced this week that it is creating a new ballet in cooperation with Twyla Tharp, one of the world's most celebrated choreographers. We have a number of other arts organizations of which the city is justifiably proud. Among them is the Woodruff Arts Center. It combines the Grammy-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Tony-winning Alliance Theater and the remarkable High Museum. The Woodruff Arts Center is yet another example of how Atlanta political and business leaders and philanthropists work together to make our city great - in culture, in society, in business. It's a wonderful place to live.

Please email the interviewee at lthomas@jonesday.com with questions about this interview.