Chris Fann, vice president of operations at Lund International, explains the operations of the automotive accessory business during a tour of the facility in Lawrenceville, Monday, April 2, 2018. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Gwinnett factory a showcase for changes in auto sector and the economy

The smell of oil gives way slowly to the scent of heated plastic as visitors make their way from the tool room into the maze of assembly lines that make up the Lund International factory.

Depending on what kind of auto accessory is being made, the sounds in the 219,000 square-foot Lawrenceville building also change: hissing, then banging, warning sirens and then a sort of quiet upon entering the room where several women sew the edges on carpeting.

Many Georgians are familiar with the Kia Motors assembly plant in West Point and the Blue Bird bus plant in Fort Valley. But the state’s auto sector is made up of much more than just the companies that put together the final vehicles.

In Monroe, they make valve timing controls, propeller shafts and power steering systems. In Tallapoosa, they make transmissions. In LaGrange, they make frame stampings and chassis components.

In all, there are more than 300 auto-related facilities in the state, accounting for $2.8 billion of the state’s annual economy and several hundred thousand jobs, said Mike Grundmann, with the state’s Department of Economic Development.

“A lot of people don’t realize how big the auto sector is,” he said. “We have been traditionally a powerhouse in parts manufacturing. Our central location makes us ideal.”

At Lund International, a company founded in Chamblee and now based in Buford, there are more than 1,100 employees, including 650 employees in two local facilities.

Lund’s workers make visors, running boards, bug deflectors, floor mats, floor liners, toolboxes for trucks and other products.

But Georgia’s auto industry includes more than manufacturers.

Atlanta-based Cox Automotive has businesses that auction millions of vehicles a year, write software to help dealers manage logistics, allow consumers to apply for credit on auto purchases, list used vehicles for sale and provide research on vehicles.

“We touch about three-quarters of every vehicle sold” in the nation, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of Cox Automotive, which has about 3,300 employees in metro Atlanta. “We do everything but manufacturing and direct sales.”

An employee of Lund International packages one of the company’s Ventvisor accessories at the Lund International Lawrenceville factory, Monday, April 2, 2018. The plant employs over 500 people from diverse backgrounds. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cox Automotive is a business unit of Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By summer, an archipelago of 16 auto plants will stretch from the Toyota plant in San Antonio to a new Volvo assembly line near Charleston. Closest to Atlanta is Kia’s factory in West Point, which pumps out vehicles by the tens of thousands.

While many auto parts are made in Asia or Mexico, most plants also like having a network of suppliers nearby.

“Let’s say that something on the assembly line is off a notch or the color on something doesn’t match,” said James Bell, a California-based spokesman for Kia Motors America. “When they are local, you can just go down the road and talk to somebody and make the adjustments and still have little impact on the manufacturing process.”

Kia – like all the auto-makers – depend on suppliers, he said.

“The first time I was in an auto plant, it struck me how little actual manufacturing goes on,” Bell said. “It’s really assembly. This is really where the puzzle comes together.”

So Lund makes a host of parts that are put on vehicles after they are assembled or sold directly to owners who want to maintain or spruce up their ride.

Lund also demonstrates how hiring for many companies in Georgia’s auto sector has had to change.

The labor market is tight,” said Mitch Fogle, president and chief executive. “We’ve had to make adjustments.”

The unemployment rate has dropped dramatically since the heights of the recession, sliding to 4 percent in Gwinnett County, which is lower than the metro and state averages. Area employers are not typically swamped with applications, so they cannot convey a take-it-or-leave-it approach to potential workers.

Because they’d leave it.

Lund employee Tuong Tran assembles a car mat at the company’s Lawrenceville factory, which employs more than 500 people. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A couple years ago, you’d just pick out who was the best fit in your culture,” Fogle said. “In today’s world, you get to pretty slim pickin’s pretty fast.”

So, the company raised its pay, providing more benefits and a 401(k) savings plan, he said.

Skilled labor in the United States is tough to find,” he said.

The result is a workforce that is more diverse – both demographically and generationally – than it might have been in decades past. Like many manufacturers, Lund relies on immigrants and first-generation Americans.

“Besides English, there are five languages spoken here,” Fogle said. “There is Bosnian, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and French.”

Many of the workers are young, especially on the second shift.

“Millennials see things differently,” Fogle said. “So we changed our hours.”

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