Companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Hunt Industries, Saft America, South Georgia Pecan, and Steeda play an integral part of Valdosta-Lowndes County’s viable manufacturing landscape.
The simple definition of manufacturing includes the act of converting raw materials into a finished product through a manual or mechanical process. This includes all foods, chemicals, textiles, machines, and equipment.
“Our mission is to create new industry and promote the growth of existing industry which drives job creation and capital investments,” said Valdosta-Lowndes County Development Authority (VLCDA) Board Chairman Tom Call. “Valdosta-Lowndes County is very fortunate to have over 35 manufacturing facilities that have continued to help our community grow with jobs and capital investments throughout the years.”
Recent growth in Lowndes County’s manufacturing and distribution industry has centered on significant expansion of existing companies and job growth, resulting in $28 million in combined capital investment and 159 direct new jobs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently 3,982 people working in manufacturing in Lowndes County. The average salary per job is $56,162 annually.
“What we have done well is help our existing businesses continue to grow,” said Andrea Schruijer, executive director of the VLCDA. “Because we have a diverse base of manufacturing and logistic distribution, we were fortunate through the recession that we didn’t see businesses close, and we don’t have a lot of empty buildings. Our businesses and industries continue to thrive and expand.”
Helping existing Lowndes County industries grow is a community effort. Earlier this year, VLCDA formed the Business Retention Action Team (BRAT) to facilitate services, information, solutions, and contacts to help companies succeed and grow. The group also promotes partnerships within local schools through career education and job placement for high school and college graduates.
BRAT is comprised of members representing the VLCDA, Georgia Department of Economic Development (including Georgia Centers of Innovation and Georgia Quick Start), Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Department of Labor, Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, University of Georgia Small Business Development Center, and Georgia Power.
“BRAT is an important component of our existing industries. The main purpose of the team is partnership,” said Stan Crance, existing industry coordinator of the VLCDA. “By working together, we provide our local industries the service and information needed to ensure growth and success in Valdosta-Lowndes County. We want to make sure they are successful, because when they succeed, they strengthen the community.”
Schruijer agrees that support from the community is a big part of Valdosta-Lowndes County’s success in recruiting and retaining top businesses and industries.An example of growth and longevity is the Saft plant, which has called Valdosta home for 41 years. With approximately 260 employees, the Saft Valdosta facility serves the aeronautics, commuter rail, and telecommunications markets.
Saft has experienced extensive growth in the past four decades and credits much of its success to excellent cooperation from the VLCDA, Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, and various state and local agencies.
“We’ve had an excellent cooperative relationship over the years,” said Jody Beasley, Saft general manager. “Those partnerships have helped us meet our objectives of doing business profitably. It has also been beneficial in terms of employment.”
One of Valdosta-Lowndes County’s oldest industries is South Georgia Pecan, which began in 1913 and was incorporated in 1926. A family-owned company, South Georgia Pecan has four plants located off West Hill Avenue (U.S. Highway 84) with approximately 800,000 square feet of production space for processing raw materials (pecans, almonds, and walnuts).
“Having our main facility in South Georgia offers us the ability to be centralized to the supply of raw materials,” said South Georgia Pecan Vice President Jeff Worn. “The Valdosta-Lowndes County Development Authority has done a lot for us from the standpoint of tax abatements and tax credits.”
Worn explains that South Georgia Pecans' primary focus is the commodities side of the business, which includes supplying raw materials both domestically and internationally.
“This is what puts food on the table,” Worn said. “This is what we are good at doing. We read the raw material markets for pecans, almonds, and walnuts, then process and distribute very large quantities very effectively.”
To expand its domestic service region, South Georgia Pecan recently opened a processing facility in El Paso, Texas.
“We built an 80,000-square-foot building in El Paso because this is the other region that will make us most centralized to major suppliers of pecans in both the Southwest and Midwest,” Worn said. “We can read the markets and understand what is going on with pecan production in South Africa and Mexico. We can then forecast carryover volumes from year-to-year, see what future crop productions will look like, and structure our procurement and sales strategies.”
The distribution of the raw materials is one side of South Georgia Pecans market strategy; however, developing what Worn describes as “value-added” products is quickly becoming an extension of the company’s growth.
“We are definitely trying to take the commodity side of our business and cut out a bigger piece of the pie for more value-added products,” Worn said. “We have started making pecan butter and have several flavors that will be out soon. We are also working on developing pecan milk and pecan flour and pecan oil, and we are introducing a Paleo nut cluster under our Golden Tree brand this year.”
Worn cautions that developing new products takes time and requires extensive market research.
“With the value-added products like Paleo nut clusters, pecan butter, flour, oil or milk, I am not shipping a pecan piece or half, I am turning the pecan into something else and that something should be different from what anyone else is producing on the market,” Worn explains. “It has to be better than anything else in the market, and if I am not doing something different, then I don’t need to be doing it.”
Written by Thressea Boyd, appeared in the South Georgia Magazine Business + Culture.
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