Worlds Collide in Munich

I spent most of November in Germany, thanks to a fellowship from the Fulbright Commission. The Berlin Capital Program was designed to bring American journalists to Berlin, educate us about Germany, its history and contemporary issues and hopefully generate more informed coverage in the American media. I chose to apply because in my business reporting the strong German/American economic development relationship has been impossible to ignore. 

The program entailed meetings and panels with experts on topics like the Stasi archive, the country's publicly-funded media outlets, Berlin's startup scene and the recent elections. I learned a ton and loved getting to know my American colleagues on the trip, too. There was a wide range of media represented, and I left inspired by them all and excited to follow their careers. 

Unrelated to the program, I found out that a trade mission from coastal Georgia was also in Germany at the same time. I managed to take a train to Munich for a night and shadow their meetings with businesses and industry associations. It was remarkable to see the worlds collide. I wrote the below story about it for the Savannah Morning News' business publication. 

If you're interested, I also wrote this sidebar about the German/Georgia economic development relationship in general. 

Business in Savannah

For the first time, Coastal Georgia group talks business in Germany

MUNICH — Representatives from nine coastal development authorities traveled across Germany on an unprecedented trade mission last month. The group of 11 together pitched the attributes of coastal Georgia in Bremen, Halle and Munich, forging relationships with businesses and officials in one of the state’s largest trade partners.

“This trip is taking our collective efforts as a region, as a coast to the next level,” said Trip Tollison, president and CEO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority and World Trade Center Savannah. “We can’t market and sell our organizations, our areas and our communities while sitting in our communities. It’s just not going to happen.”

After targeting Germany as one of the best potential opportunities for investment and trade, the Savannah Economic Development Authority and its international arm, World Trade Center Savannah, has been working to expand these prospects for coastal Georgia by getting the whole region involved.

Coastal Georgian trade mission speaks to members of the Bavarian Industry Association in Munich, Photos by Emma Hurt

“One of the things that we know is regional representation is far more powerful than individual representation,” said Craig Lesser, a former commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development who is now consulting for the World Trade Center Savannah with the Pendleton Group.

Antje Abshoff, managing director of the state of Georgia’s European office in Munich said she rarely sees communities as a group making trips like this. “That they’re making a concerted effort to be here, cooperating with each other is remarkable,” she said.

Lesser said investors appreciate seeing this early teamwork, because collaboration will likely be necessary again later in a development project. Regardless, as he put it, “the end result is that if an investor were to come to one of the counties and invest, it is going to have an effect on the entire region.”

Tollison pointed out the most important factors for prospective investors in the region are infrastructure and workforce, neither of which are not restricted by county or city lines. He cited that a typical commute in the Savannah area spans 60 miles.

“We’re all selling the same assets, really,” said Anna Chafin, chief executive director of the Development Authority of Bryan County.

Participants agreed that the joint trip coordinated by World Trade Center Savannah enabled smaller counties to participate. Providing this service to its economic development partners is “definitely part of the World Trade Center Savannah master plan,” said Jesse Dillon, the organization’s business development project manager. “They are now active participants in the process,” she said.

Other counties/development authorities represented on the trip included Liberty, Screven, Valdosta-Lowndes, McIntosh, Glynn, Charlton and Bulloch.

In a more local example of this collaborative strategy within the regional trip, Dawn Malin, executive director of the Charlton County Development Authority together with Wally Orrel of the McIntosh County Industrial Development Authority and Mel Baxter of the Brunswick and Glynn County Development Authority came on the trip representing the six counties of the Southeast Georgia Alliance.

She explained that these counties realized they would be more successful working together. “Some of our communities are quite small and don’t have as many assets,” she said. “But together, six counties are very strong.”

Between meetings with specific companies, the group gave many joint presentations telling the story of coastal Georgia, of the ports and infrastructure, of oak trees and tourism, of Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.

They concluded each meeting with an invitation to the Germans in the room: to attend a program coinciding with the Savannah Music Festival in April, designed to show off Savannah in turn. Some signed up before the Georgians had even left.

Peter Schwarz, managing director of bavAIRia, a group representing aerospace companies in the German state of Bavaria attended an event with the Georgia mission in Munich. To him, it was impressive and important that the group made the long trip. “Setting up business contacts is personal contacts. Anything else you can forget, in my point of view,” he said.

“Therefore, I can only appreciate that people take the time to come to get to know Germany and Bavaria. How else will you get a feeling for a country or businessmen without getting in contact with them?”

Tollison also underlined the importance of these meetings in the often-lengthy economic development process. He hopes to continue to bring various groups back to Germany at least once a year going forward.

“These things take years and years to cultivate and you know, ten years from now if we have a great project from Bavaria that wants to do something in coastal Georgia, we can all say it started from this process,” he said.