Ford manufactures its luxury Lincoln MKZ at its assembly plant in Hermosillo, Sonora in Mexico. / Spencer Platt, Getty Images
GREENVILLE, S.C. - Mexico has emerged as the Southeast's No. 1 competitor for automotive jobs, and industry experts are urging the region's automotive companies and their allies to band together to meet the growing challenge.
The experts say Mexico has recently replaced the Southeast as the North American region with the fastest-growing automotive industry, drawing $11 billion in investment from 2010 to 2012, compared with $7.5 billion for the Southeast in the same period.
Numerous published reports have identified BMW as among the automakers with plans to build factories in Mexico although the German automaker has not said it will open any North American plant in addition to the one it operates in Greer, S.C.
Asked about the prospects of a Mexican plant, Kenn Sparks, a spokesman for BMW of North America in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said any announcement would come from the company's headquarters in Munich.
"BMW is a global company, and we're always looking for locations that will expand our business," Sparks said.
Motor-vehicle manufacturing is the second largest of the manufacturing sectors nationwide, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Mexico's advantages in luring auto jobs include labor that is 10% less expensive than in the Southeast and free-trade agreements with 44 nations, compared to 19 for the United States.
Yet so far, the Southeast has a better supply chain and "knowledge base," he said.
Baron said he has called a meeting in March in Washington in hopes of organizing better coordination of what he calls the Southeast's "culturally diverse" and "geographically dispersed" automotive assets. He aims to strengthen the Southeast's supply chain as a way to boost jobs and make the region more competitive with Mexico.
Glenn Stevens, a vice president with the Original Equipment Suppliers Association of Troy, Mich., said the governors of four Mexican states were among those attending the Detroit Auto Show last month.
Still, Stevens was upbeat about the prospects for growth in the Southeast.
While the number of auto suppliers is bound to grow in Mexico, "It'll expand here too," Stevens said, adding that Mexico has serious security issues that are "not getting any better."
Stevens said a survey of his 450 member companies found South Carolina to have the best climate for business among U.S. states.
Rob Simon, vice president for business development at LMC Automotive forecasting firm, said vehicle production in Mexico is projected to grow more than 20% from 2.8 million vehicles in 2012 to 3.5 million vehicles in 2015.
That would give Mexico nearly 20% of all North American vehicle production, Simon said.
The list of automakers planning new production in Mexico includes Audi, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota, he said. Suppliers are likely to follow the automakers.
The United States and Canada will find it tough to compete with Mexico's giant labor pool and lower wages, he said. But the Southeast could create a competitive advantage if it produces engineers for the industry as Clemson University is doing at the International Center for Automotive Research here.
New competition from Mexico or not, South Carolina's automotive cluster continues to grow as shown in the new transmission plant that ZF Group is scheduled to dedicate this summer near Gray Court, S.C., about 25 miles southeast of Greenville
Ludger Reckmann, who oversees the plant as chief executive of ZF Transmissions, said it has hired about 450 people so far and plans to have 1,100 workers this year - more than doubling the size of the nearby town.
He said ZF Group has enough room at the plant site between Fountain Inn, S.C., and Gray Court to expand production by 50%, for a total capacity of 1.2 million transmissions a year, and that could happen in time.
"We see a lot of opportunities in the North American market," Reckmann said.
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