Oakland County, Michigan’s economic hub, has struggled in recent years to overcome a high unemployment rate and stagnant auto industry. Since 2014, however, the county has posted record growth in attracting foreign investment, especially in automotive, industrial, aerospace, medical and robotics fields. Indeed, its turnaround is being held up as an example to other struggling locations in the US.  

“More than 1000 international companies from 39 countries have business locations here,” says Irene Spanos, the county director for economic development at Oakland County. “That’s huge for a county that is about 2300 square kilometres with a population of 1.3 million people. There are US states that don’t have as much foreign investment as our county does.” 

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Job creation

In 2014, at least two international businesses a month expanded or located in Oakland, metropolitan Detroit’s second largest county, after Wayne County, which includes the city of Detroit.

Ms Spanos says that 30 foreign companies invested more than $171m in Oakland County in 2014 – more than 25% of $639m total. This foreign investment injection resulted in the creation of nearly 2000 new jobs.

And the momentum has continued into 2015, which is set to meet or exceed those numbers. And among the top reasons for foreign investors coming to Oakland county are its well-educated workforce with strong engineering talent, major colleges and universities, a strong customer base, and access to three airports. 

But challenges still exist when it comes to wooing foreign business, including contacting key decision makers at an early stage. “Nothing is more frustrating for us [than] the company that has already decided to go to another state or country when the best business case is for them to locate here,” says Ms Spanos. These companies are now frequently relocating to Oakland County, eventually, but a lot of “money, time and headaches could [be avoided] if they had all of the information early on”, says Ms Spanos. 

Located in the Eastern Time Zone and home to multiple border crossings to Canada, Michigan has historically been attractive to global businesses. “We’re focusing on companies that express a desire to locate in the US,” says Ms Spanos.

International draw

L Brooks Patterson, the county executive at Oakland County, is widely credited with being responsible for this focus on international business. “Clearly, Oakland County is a multinational investment destination. Investors come from around the world, make significant financial commitments and create hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs. This international investment is a perfect hedge for US investment. They play off each other extremely well,” he says.

Japan is Oakland’s top investment country, with more than 270 Japanese-owned companies present within its borders, according to county records. Germany is second with more than 220 companies.  

Oakland County has Michigan’s highest per capita income – $57,035 – a figure that stands as the 12th highest nationally among counties with more than 1 million residents. Metropolitan Detroit exports nearly $54bn in goods annually, ranking it fourth in total US exports among similar sized locations.

According to officials in the county, a “holistic approach” to FDI, considering business and family needs, is one of the keys to this success. “We get how overwhelming the US environment can be. Making sure the family is integrated here with the parent culture is key. Not a lot of states even think about the personal aspects of foreign investment and how the entire family is affected,” says Ms Spanos.

Her team recently developed the tech248.com initiative, which represents some 2000 IT-tech companies active within the county. Its success has already seen the model copied in New York City, through the launch of its tech212.com project. 

In 2015, six team members conducted trade missions to Italy, Canada, China, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea, and plans are already afoot for a delegation to visit India in 2016. Proof, it if were needed, that Oakland County will not be resting on the laurels of its recent success.