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DAS North America feels right at home in Montgomery

May 2012

By David Zaslawsky

Photography by Robert Fouts

With a history of successfully recruiting Korean companies, supporting the families of those Korean executives coupled with an aggressive economic development team of private and public officials it is not surprising that Montgomery attracted DAS North America Inc. to make its home here.DAS North America looked at 80-plus sites before deciding on Montgomery although it will supply parts miles away to the Kia manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia.

It does make business sense to be a handful of miles away from your final destination and reduce transportation costs.

“That is more logical and makes more sense,” said James Uhm, deputy general manager of DAS North America, which will supply automotive seat components to the Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia plant. Those seat components enable the front seats to slide back and forth as well as recline.

The company will build a permanent manufacturing plant at Montgomery Industrial Park in East Montgomery after it begins assembling parts at a temporary facility at Interstate Industrial Park in Montgomery.

“This is a very big win for us because we had to compete for this site with a lot of other locations in East Alabama and Georgia,” said Carl Barranco, chairman of the Montgomery Area Committee of 100 and chairman of the economic development committee for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We are very appreciate of DAS putting the confidence in us because it would have been really easy to locate somewhere in East Alabama,” Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said. “It would have been very easy for them to locate somewhere in Georgia.”

Montgomery won the recruiting war and although nobody would come out and say it, city, county and Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce took this one with their demonstrated partnerships and a little bit of help from a former Montgomery Realtor, who now works for a Birmingham firm. But more about that later.

“We looked for a manufacturing plant (site) near the West Point area,” Uhm said before a news conference, announcing a $50 million investment and the eventual creation of 240 jobs.

“We looked at Opelika, Auburn and LaGrange, Georgia. We started from that area and expanded out. We also looked at Columbus, Georgia. We looked at Birmingham. We even looked as far as Greenville, Alabama, just to see what’s out there for us.”

He acknowledged that “Opelika and Auburn looked very promising in the beginning.” He said that at one point LaGrange and Opelika were “probably our top two choices.” Uhm also said, “Opelika was looking like a favorite to us.”

Opelika also had a temporary facility for DAS North America at a site that more closely met the company’s needs - about 100,000 square feet and less rent than the temporary, 150,000-square-foot facility at Interstate Industrial Park.

So what happened? Why Montgomery? That’s where Lear Corp. Plant Manager Duk Kim comes in and Eric Higgins, a Birmingham commercial real estate professional comes in.

Business is all about relationships and DAS supplies Lear and Lear is located in the Interstate Industrial Park. Kim and Uhm have known each other for about five years, play golf together and have a “very friendly business relationship,” according to Kim.

Kim talked to Uhm and suggested why not look at Montgomery. “The only thing I did was point them in a different direction,” Kim said. “I don’t think it was that big of a deal. The ultimate decision was made by DAS and I had no influence on them making the decision.”

The Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s data about Montgomery – in Korean – was sent to DAS Korea. After reviewing the information, Kim recalled that Uhm said, ‘maybe we should look at Montgomery.’

Uhm said that Kim said “there is a good opportunity here (Montgomery).”

That made quite an impression on Uhm, who said, “So we decided to pay attention to Montgomery. That’s when we found out that Montgomery has a lot more to offer.”

After the news conference at the Chamber, Uhm said the quality of Montgomery’s work force was another factor in his company’s decision to locate here. He said there was a “better pool of workers.” Kim said that Uhm “knows that the Lear plant has a great work force. He knows the caliber of the Montgomery work force.”

Higgins, who used to work in commercial real estate in Montgomery, called the Chamber and told Ellen McNair, vice president, Corporate Development, about a site search for “Project Vision.” He asked the Chamber to put together a proposal that he would submit to the client.

Two weeks later, Kim invited a Chamber official to have lunch and meet Uhm. It took a few days, but Chamber officials figured out that Project Vision was the recruitment of DAS North America.

Relationships between automotive parts suppliers and Realtors and the Chamber were critical, but more people would get involved. The first phase of DAS North America’s project is moving into that temporary facility, where Graham Packaging Co. was once located but vacated the building after losing their primary client in Montgomery.

That building is owned by Industrial Partners General Manager Nimrod T. Frazer Jr. He said that Graham Packaging was still paying on its 15-year lease although the building was vacant. Hodges Commercial Real Estate/Warehouse + Logistics in Montgomery represented Graham Packaging to sublease the building.

Oh, by the way, Paul Hodges is vice president and a shareholder of Hodges Commercial Real Estate. He, along with Frazer and Kim are all active Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce members.

Uhm said that two of the most important factors in the site selection process were proximity to the customer and plant availability “so that we could move in quickly and set up our operation quickly,” he said. Another key element was that the site for a permanent plant be near the temporary location.

“My management took a long time to weigh all the options and at the end even with a longer (travel) time – Montgomery was a better candidate,” Uhm said. “When we reviewed offers and incentives here and the support – we had to go with Montgomery. We feel we made the right choice and we are excited and happy to be here.”

Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton N. Dean said, “Montgomery is proud to partner with you. If there is anything you need and I say it from the heart and I know there are a lot of things you might need – the city and the county will make sure you get it.”

One of the reasons for moving the operations to Montgomery is reducing the number of containers bringing parts from Korea and cutting logistics and packaging expenses. Right now, DAS North America is bringing in six to seven containers a week. The company will still have to import some core components from Korea.

“What this says to me is the future of the automotive industry in Montgomery, Alabama, in Central Alabama and the River Region is in good hands and will be growing,” Strange said.

DAS North America is the 13th automotive supplier in Montgomery County, which combined have invested more than $478 million and created 3,400-plus jobs.

Uhm is balancing several projects and programs. The first phase is assembling parts at the former Graham Packaging Co. plant and the goal was to begin that work May 1 with 60 to 70 employees. DAS North America will supply seat components beginning July 1 for the Hyundai Santa Fe, which is manufactured at the Kia plant. A couple of months after that, Uhm’s company will supply seat components for the Kia Sorento, which is also manufactured at the Kia plant. DAS North America can produce 130,000 seat components for both the Santa Fe and Sorento.

With the Kia plant and the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama plant in Montgomery producing a combined 600,000-plus vehicles a year – that translates into 1.2 million seat components (two per vehicle).

As soon as assembly begins at Interstate Industrial Park, DAS North America will begin construction on a 150,000-square-foot plant at Montgomery Industrial Park with an expected completion date of 1½ to two years.

Once DAS North America is at its permanent site, the company will also manufacture the parts as well as assemble them. About 200 of the company’s projected 240 employees would be involved in the manufacturing/assembly segment, according to Uhm. The remainder will be salaried positions in management and administration.

Frazer said that DAS North America will have ample room to grow on the company’s 14-acre site at Montgomery Industrial Park. “This property is located off of I-85 and it’s to the east of town so it gives (DAS) access to go to Kia from the eastside of Montgomery. Plus, it’s a nice existing park. It was a really good fit for them.”

Uhm is also involved with a joint venture with Johnson Control that has grown dramatically in Clanton. DAS had been working with CRH, which was bought out by Johnson Control. The joint venture supplies parts for the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra, which are produced in Montgomery at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama’s plant.