by Jeff Bennett
Detroit Free Press Business Writer
DETROIT — Luis Salazar’s booth is one of the largest at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, with four columns, flags and several comfortable leather chairs.
But with space that rivals General Motors Corp.’s and Ford Motor Co.’s exhibits, Salazar isn’t pushing cool 21st-century technology, sensors or car parts — he’s pushing Mexico. If you have jobs, the Mexican deputy trade commissioner has plenty of land, workers and a proven track record with the auto industry to offer.
Although this relatively small high-tech conference has been used for years by states to recruit companies, this is the first year that foreign countries have edged out states in the number of recruiting booths. The states are operating seven booths at the conference, which runs through Thursday at Cobo Center in Detroit, while foreign countries have eight. The shift is yet another sign that the battle for jobs has expanded far beyond North American auto plants.
Sonny Simmons, representing the state of Mississippi, said it’s no longer states versus states or even North versus South.
“Everybody is looking,” said Simmons, who was one of at least five recruiters from Mississippi. “We have China, France and the U.K. calling us looking to locate, and there is a company out of Mexico who may want to move to Mississippi.”
States and countries are spending a lot of time and money to come to a small conference in the heart of Detroit to recruit the smaller automotive suppliers. The suppliers are not large employers but they offer good-paying high-tech jobs.
Antonio Benecchi, a partner with Roland Berger Strategy Consultants based in Troy, Mich., said the competition will continue to intensify.
North America and western Europe will lose 11 percent to 20 percent of their global supplier production share by the end of 2010, according to a study released Monday by Roland Berger.
“I think there is a role for Michigan’s state government to be more aggressive in retaining and attracting new investment,” Benecchi said. “I think the governor has placed this on the high priority list, and this is a good thing because Michigan needs to be part of the game because it has the most to lose.”
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm made an appearance at the conference, where Michigan is represented by two booths — one operated by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the other by the Detroit Regional Chamber. Granholm said she is prepared to be more aggressive to keep and attract businesses.
“We are planning overseas trips to woo manufacturers here,” she said. “We are in a tough international competition, and no one is more competitive than I am. We will be very aggressive.”
While Granholm spoke, eight countries, including Germany and China, answered questions and handed out brochures at their recruiting booths. Mexico’s booth is larger than Michigan’s two booths combined, and was staffed by seven ambassadors representing different areas of the country.
In both Spanish and English, visitors to the Mexico booth were invited to sit in the leather chairs and huddle with officials. The officials answered questions, jotted notes or exchanged business cards.
Austria’s delegation from the state of Styria is expected to arrive at the show yesterday.
Maja Seferovic, the Austria Trade Commission’s project manager, said the goal is to generate at least 10 to 15 business leads during the show. That’s roughly the same number other recruiting states and countries hope to generate.
“It’s competitive and we have to let them know who we are, which is why we are here,” Seferovic said.
In addition to answering business questions, Austria was passing out vacation planning brochures.
Salazar, the Mexican deputy trade commissioner, started displaying at the show five years ago and knows the sting of competition. In the past two years, Mexico has lost 400,000 production jobs to China.
“In the beginning, it was a nightmare,” Salazar said. “We have had to spend a lot of time and money to focus on our competitive edge, which is auto parts.”
Granholm said Michigan’s hope remains rooted in its automotive capital image. But she has added a technology twist.
“We clearly build cars here, but we also have advanced manufacturing and the research and development centers,” she said. “The advantages of coming here far outweigh the advantages of going elsewhere.”
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