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More foreign-owned firms call Charlotte home

By Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier
Eric Frazier covers economic development. He has been reporting and editing at the Observer for more than 15 years. If you have a story idea or news tip to share, contact him at:

Last week, the Observer reported that North Carolina officials offered the Boeing Co. a $600 million-plus incentives deal in a failed quest to win the new 777X jet plant and thousands of good-paying jobs.

Depending on how you feel about public money being used to lure industry, that registered as either an anger-inducing peek behind the corporate welfare curtain, or a sign that Charlotte and North Carolina just aren’t ready to compete in the high-stakes world of interstate corporate recruiting.

(Washington state won the plant with an incentives offer that landed north of $8 billion.)

Megadeals like Boeing’s draw most of the spotlight (and criticism), but much of the work of bringing new companies and jobs to Charlotte happens quietly. It’s often one modestly sized or small company at a time.

And increasingly, those companies are coming from outside the United States.

Chances are you haven’t heard of John Norman, a partner with the GreerWalker accounting firm in Charlotte. But a lot of foreign business leaders who’ve brought or considered bringing their companies here have.

If he’s lucky, Norman gets a call when a company in Germany or Italy or Japan is considering coming to Charlotte. They’ll need a local tax adviser to help them figure out how business is done in this country, and how to keep their costs at a minimum.

“Think about coming to a country where you don’t know anything about the systems or how things work, how you pay people,” he says. “There’s a lot of things we (in the U.S.) take for granted.”

The Charlotte region has 918 foreign-owned firms hailing from 46 countries, according to the Charlotte Chamber. Germany provides the biggest chunk, nearly 200.

But increasingly, more are coming from China – about two dozen now and rising, the chamber says.

Keer America, a big Chinese textile firm, last year announced plans to bring a yarn factory and 500 jobs to Indian Land, S.C., just south of Ballantyne. A TV station in mainland China even did a report about how more and more Asian firms are looking to expand to the Carolinas.

GreerWalker, founded in Charlotte in 1984, is one of many local firms benefiting from the influx. Norman, a 20-year veteran of the firm, runs its global services unit.

When I asked him how many German companies the firm has worked with, he thought it over a minute before settling on “probably somewhere between 50 to 100.”

But he’s seeing the China connection grow stronger. Many Chinese firms doing business in the U.S. have put down roots in California, he said, but with major population centers on the East Coast, more of them are looking this way.

“They are extending the operations or leaving California and coming to the East Coast,” he said. “And the distribution center is Charlotte. Among the companies that are inquiring (about Charlotte) and that we’re helping to create (business) models for, there’s definitely more of them from China now than from Europe.”

So, we didn’t get Boeing.

But Charlotte landed 7,208 new jobs in 2013, surpassing the chamber’s goal of 5,100. Companies made $728 million in new capital investments, easily beating the $415 million goal.

I suspect that, with Norman and anonymous others like him around the region quietly oiling the gears of commerce, Charlotte will be OK, even if we don’t get the next megadeal.

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, efrazier@charlotteobserver.com or @Ericfraz on Twitter.
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