It’s an area known for heavy involvement in the automotive world — home to everything from a robotics-equipped tire manufacturer to creating ATVs made nowhere else in the world to creating individual parts that keep vehicles of all sizes safe and running properly.
But it wasn’t always that way. With decades of effort and involvement by the local Chamber of Commerce now led by president and CEO Al Hodge, Rome and Floyd County have earned the nickname “Automotive Valley” and made it stick. As their numbers continue to grow and local businesses expand, there’s no looking back, either.
The new journey began in 1998 when Hodge, who has been with Rome’s chamber for nearly 20 years, and other staff members, saw a change within the automotive industry.
Faced with plant closings and rumors of more closing, the chamber team realized that change was in order — a change to boost both business and citizen morale.
“We needed to go toward an advanced manufacturing economy in our area, and away from the former textiles business that we had been using in the area historically, ” Hodge says.
This was done, he says, by studying the market and learning where automotive jobs were headed compared to where they had been. “We determined that this was an appropriate, in fact, a perfect, sector for automotive.”
Rome’s Chamber of Commerce then began working with local and state organizations, along with private businesses, to set their shift into place. The first step was building infrastructure and growing talent needed to support their efforts.
Next, they began to coordinate with local schools in shaping curriculum for colleges, technical schools and even high schools — sharing what types of requirements would be needed, expressing projected changes, and more.
“We worked with them so the future work force will have the right skills and talents that the automotive industry needs, ” Hodge says.
Initially, the 1998 plan was set with a goal in mind for the year 2020 — just over 20 years out from its inception. And with the added play on 20-20 vision, Hodge says, the team could see their plan clearly. However, after seeing incredible growth early on, they reworked that initial plan, and have continued to do so every five years, setting even higher standards and stronger goals.
“We continue to raise the bar. We will not settle for the status quo. Every five years we either fine-tune or overhaul our plan and set higher sights, ” he says. “Naturally we are well beyond the year 2020 with planning now.”
Some of Rome’s automotive plants include tire maker Pirelli, where technicians work side by side with robots and human hands never touch the manufacturing process, Hodge says. Suzuki’s North American all-terrain vehicle plant is also located in Floyd County, the only creator of their King Quads in the world.
All in all, the area houses six major automotive companies, almost all of which have expanded and grown during their time in Rome.
They include: F&P Georgia, which has expanded five times since 1998. The firm’s expertise includes stamping-die maintenance, welding, painting services and assembly operations.
Others include Neaton Rome, an automotive parts maker that has expanded four times; Foss Manufacturing, a woven textile maker, which maintains one of its largest operations in Rome; and FP Pigments, a company that creates and sells paints for the automotive industry and others.
Pirelli Tire North America, makers of high performance tires, has expanded twice. Suzuki Manufacturing has also twice expanded its operation, which makes all-terrain vehicles and other products.
Each of these companies’ presence also branches out into other industries, Hodge says — attracting shipping and logistics providers, equipment repair firms and more. This circular growth benefits the entire county, Hodge says.
In addition to local marketing to help bring in business and raise awareness, Hodge says he and other chamber members take on a number of efforts. Each year, they host a program featuring ideas for innovation. Attendees travel from miles away to learn new trends and network with others in the industry.
Rome’s chamber also works with local schools to ensure graduates are equipped with the skills needed for the growing automotive industry in Floyd County — such as robotics and automated manufacturing. Apprenticeship and internship programs are available so that students can “learn by doing the primary skills for the automotive sector.”
The chamber team also recruits business near and far — as close as Atlanta and as far as Tokyo, Montreal and Milan.
And it works to make sure Rome stays up to speed with the industry — prepared for changes to hybrids and electric vehicles as well as self-driving vehicles.
“The types of vehicles will continue to change, along with the technology.”
Hodge enjoys his chamber work.“It’s very rewarding because you get to make a difference in your community. You can help lift people out of poverty, you can help support entrepreneurs’ success, as well as large companies, ” he says.
After graduating from college, Hodge began working for Chambers in Charleston, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia, before moving to Rome.
He’s served on the state Board of Education, and just finished a term as chairman of the board for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Hodge studied at George Washington University, taught leadership for the US Army War College, is on the board of the Japan American Society of Georgia and has been the president of the Georgia Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. “That’s what Chamber work does, ” he says. “If you’re serious about it, you’ll avail yourself to work every day, many times during the weekends, to help make a difference.”