Belgian princess leads largest trade visit to Atlanta since Olympics

Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium makes a stop at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights for a panel on diversity, equity and inclusion on Monday, June 6, 2022. The visit is a part of a Belgium economic trade  mission trip to the United States. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium makes a stop at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights for a panel on diversity, equity and inclusion on Monday, June 6, 2022. The visit is a part of a Belgium economic trade mission trip to the United States. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Princess Astrid and Belgian business leaders lead huge delegation to Georgia.

Scores of Belgian officials and business leaders streamed through the doors at one of Atlanta’s signature attractions and Katie Kirkpatrick just smiled and shook her head.

The people crowding into the lobby of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown were part of the largest economic entourage to visit Georgia since the 1996 Summer Olympic Games gave the state and its capital city a global showcase. The message Monday was both one of accomplishment and opportunity, said Kirkpatrick, president and chief executive of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

“This is really extraordinary,” she said.

The two-day Belgian trade mission was originally scheduled for June 2020 and delayed because of the pandemic. COVID-19 disrupted global trade and the way Georgia recruits companies, but it didn’t derail the Peach State’s efforts to attract businesses or the fundamentals of what it offers — namely global connections, a relative low cost of operations and a pro-business climate.

The idea was to let Belgian business and government officials see operations of companies in Georgia that are owned by Belgian firms, but also a chance to see opportunities for expansions and new ventures, Kirkpatrick said.

“We hope to see more investment from the Belgian companies that are here,” she said. “We have continually hosted delegations, but nothing of this size.”

Or of royal pedigree.

The delegation, representing about 250 companies, was led by Princess Astrid, the younger sister of the Belgium’s reigning monarch, King Philippe.

Gov. Brian Kemp was scheduled to hold a reception for Princess Astrid and the delegation after press time Monday evening at global law firm King & Spalding.

The 541-person Belgian delegation, representing about 250 companies, will later visit Boston and New York. It is the second-largest economic mission the country has ever assembled, out-done only by an earlier visit to China, officials said.

With just 11.6 million people in a space less than one-fifth the size of Georgia, Belgium is the tenth-largest exporter in the world. Belgium, Georgia’s 14th largest trading partner, has had a consular presence in the state since 1834.

At 54 Belgian companies have operations in the state, employing about 4,800 people, according the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Although she moved through the crowd smiling and speaking occasionally, the princess did not address the gathering at the civil rights museum.

During several speeches and a panel discussion, Princess Astrid sat in the front row next to Kirkpatrick.

The discussion was centered on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, an event tailored to Atlanta’s history as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. Jill Savitt, chief executive of the museum, said there can be a competing pull for private companies, the desire to make sure all people are treated well and encouraged to be their best against the need to please customers and make a profit.

“You face a tension in that work,” she said. “What you are addressing is the question of basic human dignity and the protection of democracy — that is what you are talking about.”

But the conflict is not irresolvable, argued David Clarinval, the Belgian federal minister in charge of foreign trade. “Outside these walls is an increasingly polarized world. (But) conducting business and defending human rights — from my experience it is possible to do both.”

But there is also increasingly a danger that a company will run afoul of a government that opposes some of those values, said Geri Thomas, former chief diversity officer at Bank of America. Culture war battles have been raised in numerous state legislatures, including Georgia’s, that have sometimes put business and political leaders at odds.

Florida’s governor, for instance, has acted to punish companies that took stands on gay rights or vaccinations that he rejected.

“You’ve to have the courage to say and do the right thing — Walt Disney Co. — no matter what the ramifications,” she said.

Georgia ties

State and local officials say they hope trade missions like these can deepen Belgian connections already here.

Belgium’s AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, operates an Anheuser Busch plant in Bartow County. Pharmaceutical giant UCB has its U.S. headquarters in Cobb County, while plastics manufacturer Solvay has operations in Alpharetta and Augusta.

Members of the Belgian delegation visited Solvay on Sunday to ceremonially open a new laboratory that specializes in 3D printing, technology that can be used in electric vehicles, hydrogen-based energy and aerospace.

On Monday, the delegation visited UCB.

Other Belgian businesses with significant Georgia operations include accountancy BDO USA, wire manufacturer Bekaert Corp., software services company OMP USA and plastics maker Resilux America.

Officials Monday were reluctant to promise immediate results from the visit, but said they have high hopes.

“We would like to see more of these visits, more travel and more investment from our partners,” Kirkpatrick said.

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Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Katie Kirkpatrick speaks at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta during an event on diversity, equity and inclusion on Monday, June 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Katie Kirkpatrick speaks at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta during an event on diversity, equity and inclusion on Monday, June 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Metro Atlanta Chamber CEO Katie Kirkpatrick speaks at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta during an event on diversity, equity and inclusion on Monday, June 6, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com