The World Turns — to Oakland County

International companies see benefits of establishing operations here

Students learn to operate robots at Fanuc. Photo courtesy of Fanuc

Governments and companies all over the world know about Oakland County.
That’s not just a boast from county officials — though Oakland County is certainly proud of its world renown.

It’s borne out by the fact that so many international companies have settled here. Brose. SAIC USA. Denso. The list goes on and on. In fact, around 1,100 international companies from 39 different countries call Oakland County their American home.

ATTRACTING FOREIGN INVESTMENT

It’s not a coincidence. The county takes recruitment efforts seriously.

“We have an aggressive group. We build up relationships with businesses in Asia, Europe, India — but also the government officials,” says Michael McCready, senior advisor of Oakland County Economic Development & Community Affairs. “These are not just one-time visits. We make consistent visits.”

In addition to scouting and meeting companies in the United States and abroad, the county prides itself on the availability of economic development resources at all government levels.

When the Japanese automation supplier Fanuc was looking to build a $51 million manufacturing and warehouse facility, the company chose a site in Auburn Hills near its Rochester Hills headquarters. That was in lieu of locations in competing states, including Illinois, where it also has offices.

“Working with the city of Auburn Hills and Oakland County made it an easy decision,” says Joe Cvengros, vice president of operations at Fanuc America. “The overall process and professionalism has been great.

“When working with other organizations, you hear about the reputation of Oakland County from the feedback of their own building processes. The county works with us and checks in with us. They’re very proactive.”

HIGH-TECH, KNOWLEDGE-BASED

That reputation has been cultivated over years of economic growth. While it started with automotive suppliers decades ago, the county has diversified to become more recession-proof by appealing to more high-tech and knowledge-based industries. Programs like the Emerging Sectors® business attraction and retention initiative have helped ensure success.

Richard Ansell of Mahindra and Dan Carmody of Eastern Market Corporation with two Mahindra-built vehicles the company donated to the Detroit market. Photo courtesy of Mahindra

And while the automotive industry remains a strong presence throughout the county, there is less focus on manufacturing and more on the research and development, mobility and advanced manufacturing sectors.

Ryan Cram, Oakland County manager of business development, credits the advanced manufacturing and technology business association Automation Alley as yet another of the county’s tools available to reel in out-of-town companies. Headquartered in Troy, the organization once affiliated with Oakland County — and brainchild of late County Executive
L. Brooks Patterson — is now an independent nonprofit whose objective remains improving Michigan industry.

Cram says that the county partners with Automation Alley to woo international companies, utilizing the nonprofit’s International Business Center to provide a risk-free landing zone for companies interested in setting up operations in the United States.

“It’s a great way for companies to come here and dip their toes in the water,” he says.

The International Business Center provides companies with a desk, mailing address and access to conference rooms while also helping connect them to local development groups and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. What’s more, access to the business center is free for 90 days.

While Automation Alley doesn’t favor one county over another, it’s perhaps a testament to Oakland County that more than half of the companies to have graduated from the program have since opened their doors here.

“We’re here to help the local economy,” says Lisa Lasser, manager of the business center. “These companies are setting up offices and creating jobs; their employees are buying houses and going to restaurants.”

QUALITY OF LIFE MATTERS

Still, for all the county’s courting, transparency, initiatives and influential partners, much of the appeal comes down to the county itself — its variety of communities and the people who live, work and play here.

In promoting the county to outside companies and governments, officials tout quality of life and amenities, proximity to Canada and Oakland County’s AAA bond rating, which it has maintained for two decades, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

The opening celebration for Mahindra’s Auburn Hills facility. Photo courtesy of Mahindra

But most of all, in its pursuit of knowledge-based and high-tech companies, Oakland County’s greatest strength is its skilled workforce. More than 50 percent of residents have an associate degree or higher. And the state of Michigan itself has the highest concentration of engineers — 104,000 — in the United States.

Automotive manufacturer Mahindra was founded in 1945. Earlier this decade, the company decided it wanted a more global presence, to grow from its headquarters in Mumbai, India. They established themselves in Troy with seven employees in 2013; they’ve since grown to 500 across facilities in Troy, Pontiac and Auburn Hills. Mahindra Automotive North America is currently considering sites for an expanded manufacturing facility.

“Our leadership decided that they wanted to be a global company and to do that, they needed an offshore engineering base,” says Richard Ansell, vice president of marketing and media relations for Mahindra Automotive. “We looked in Germany, the U.K., Seoul, northern California — and decided that southeastern Michigan and Oakland County is still one of the premier engineering centers.

“It’s an easy place to attract talent.”