Foreign investors add some 'zip' to the Peach State
''Hey, Mr. Gregory,'' a young black man calls out as Alex Gregory, an executive at a big zipper plant here, bounds through the office lobby on the way back from lunch.
''Bernard, what are you doing here?'' he replies as they shake hands.
''I got the job!'' the younger man beams. ''I start Monday at 3 p.m.''
Mr. Gregory offers his congratulations. Bernard's success in landing the job illustrates a number of themes about Georgia today, not least the new economic opportunities becoming available to young blacks. It also points up the burgeoning role of foreign investment in Georgia: The plant where Bernard landed his job is owned by the US subsidiary of the Japanese zipper giant, YKK - and is , by the way, the most productive YKK plant in the world.
Back in his office, Mr. Gregory fills a visitor in on Bernard's story: Laid off from his job in an auto factory in Detroit, he came to Macon to his grandmother's to look for work. Some time spent searching yielded only a part-time job in a restaurant. But there he met Gregory, who recommended he apply at the zipper plant. ''I bet I feel as good about that as he does,'' Gregory says.
It may be true, as one Georgian newspaper editor jokes, that across most of the state, the ethnic variety ranges from Baptist to Methodist. But the Peach State is being spiced with a dash of international seasoning as foreign investors make tracks for Georgia.
Much of this activity takes the form of real estate holdings by British, Dutch, Belgian, and West German investors - all in countries with direct air service to Atlanta.
Georgians are quick to point out the growth here of Japanese business, which was aggressively wooed by former Gov. George Busbee. Japanese investment here has increased almost sevenfold within the past decade, to $184 million.
Georgia is a surprising No. 4 among the states in the number of Japanese business people it has attracted (behind California; New York; and Tennessee, home of a large Nissan Motors plant). In total investment, Georgia falls to No. 5, behind South Carolina, where Japanese interests have holdings in a major aluminum-processing facility.
No doubt, much of Georgia's foreign investment is due to the ''hub effect'' of Atlanta: The city is home for a sizable consular corps and 19 foreign banks, which feed a certain amount of international investment into the rest of the state. Japanese and other international investors are drawn here for the same reasons others are: relatively low labor costs, mild winters, the growing population. The Japanese also find Southerners, with their company-loyalty ethic and strong family ties, congenial, says Yoshinori Tsujimoto, Japanese consul in Atlanta.
Any influx of new capital from abroad is good news. But foreign investment has a particular cachet: Georgians see foreign investment, particularly Japanese , as an indication of faith in their state's future.
''The Japanese don't invest in places that aren't going anywhere,'' an Atlanta financial analyst says with a touch of pride.
''Japanese firms are looking for opportunities in investment and trade, and doing quite well,'' says the quintessentially soft-spoken Mr. Tsujimoto. Of 100 -plus Japanese firms here, 20 of them manufacturing companies, only one has had to pull out; ''the others are expanding,'' he adds.
The biggest of them all is the YKK complex in Macon, a city once known primarily as an exporter of soul singers (Otis Redding and others) but which has more recently marked its first cherry blossom festival. Yoshinori (''Kenny'') Kitano, executive vice-president of YKK (USA) Inc., has become the unofficial dean of the state's Japanese business community.
Worldwide, YKK, with annual sales of some $2 billion to $3 billion, has been seen as an example of how an aggressive Asian company can topple an entrenched market leader, Talon, through careful cost control and customer service.
''Our service is different for different customers,'' Mr. Gregory says. A big jeans manufacturer will buy a truckload of uncut zipper chain, ''but in New York City, we have people on bicycles delivering 17 yellow zippers to a single customer.''
Tadao Yoshida, president and founder of this still-privately held company, has promulgated his ''cycle of goodness'' philosophy, whereby the company not only makes a profit, but helps enrich society and contributes to the happiness of the workers.
At the Macon complex, under YKK's decentralized management, Mr. Kitano has been able to achieve high productivity through such techniques as integrating production lines vertically. (This avoids shipping unfinished goods from one plant to another.)
In the small parking lot outside a plant that extrudes filament for zippers there are only three cars - because the plant requires only three workers a shift. ''We could go with just two,'' Mr. Gregory says. ''But then, if someone were out sick, that would leave just one in the plant, and that's not good from a safety point of view.''
Mr. Kitano estimates that some 400 YKK employees from Japan have come to visit over the past decade to see how they do it in Macon.
But except for some specific practices, such as replacing all machinery after five years, Mr. Gregory, the manufacturing vice-president, is hesitant to speak of ''Japanese management,'' preferring to talk in terms of ''good management.''
Not coincidentally, YKK (USA) has succeeded in making itself an American company. Some 96 percent of YKK sales in this country are of zippers made in this country.
The market for zippers in the US is following the structural decline of textiles and the garment industry. Demand is down from some 2.5 billion zippers 10 years ago to about 1.5 billion today, as the garment industry has migrated abroad.
The garmentmakers in South Korea and Taiwan will likely buy YKK zippers - but from the firm's Korean and Taiwanese subsidiaries.
Because of the decentralization of YKK, those Korean and Taiwanese subsidiaries are competitors of YKK (USA). And so Mr. Kitano has an interest in trying to keep US garmentmakers buying YKK zippers made by YKK (USA).
He emphasizes that Japanese businesses have been kept in shape for competition on world markets by fierce rivalry every day at home. He says it distresses him that so many US manufacturers are throwing in the towel, so to speak: ''I think the younger group is forgetting to fight.''