A push to remind Israelis that Georgia exists

Deeper coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is the only media outlet that has traveled to Israel to cover Gov. Nathan Deal’s trade mission there. To see other stories about the trip, as well as an interactive map highlighting companies there with interests in Georgia, go to MyAJC.com.

Countertop manufacturer Caesarstone decided its next manufacturing plant needed to be outside the woody hills of northern Israel and closer to overseas customers. It picked a far-flung site for its new gem: the coastal plain of southeast Georgia.

Caesarstone is banking on the plant’s proximity to Savannah’s port to get its countertops more quickly to the marketplace. And state officials hold out hope that their partnership with the Israeli firm as a sign that a new international strategy is working.

Israel has never been a major trading partner with Georgia, and until recently, its companies haven’t had substantial footprints in the state. As Gov. Nathan Deal’s trade delegation travels this week through the Holy Land, he hopes to persuade more Israeli firms to use Georgia as a springboard to vault their products to market.

They face challenges from Israeli executives who have deeper ties to bigger markets in New York and Chicago. And it comes amid an international divestment movement that seeks to punish Israel for its policies toward Palestinians. But Deal and state officials see a potentially lucrative payoff.

A Georgia launching pad

Israel, with roughly 8 million people, would likely be a blip on the political map if not for its cultural and religious ties and its robust economy. Israel has one of the world’s most competitive high-tech hubs, and many of its entrepreneurs have ambitions that extend far beyond the Middle East.

“Our market is so tiny that Israeli entrepreneurs have to go across the world to grow,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told Deal at a rooftop meeting above a bustling outdoor marketplace.

Georgia, which for 20 years has had a trade office in Israel, is trying to adapt to the changes. The office was instructed last year to shift focus from booting trade toward increasing direct foreign investment. The Caesarstone deal that was announced in November — bringing a $100 million plant to Georgia — is seen as a sign that it’s paying off.

There are now 40 Israeli firms that have operations in Georgia, and many are technology outfits with the type of high-wage jobs that economic recruiters crave. The biggest, Amdocs, has nearly 700 employees in metro Atlanta, meriting a visit this week from Deal to thank the firm for its investment.

Georgia officials see potential for more growth. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Deal on Monday to talk about partnerships between institutions such as Georgia Tech and Israeli firms to develop new cybersecurity measures. Hank Huckaby, the chancellor of the Board of Regents, said he will make doing so a priority.

Deal's aides said they hoped that visit sent an undeniable message to Israel during a tumultuous time. The Holy Land is facing increased security threats from unstable neighbors, and on Friday the Presbyterian Church voted to sell stock in three companies with ties to Israel, giving the international divestment movement a high-profile victory.

Deal said in an interview that the face-to-face nature of the visits could help seal short-term deals and build relations that could pay off in the long run. Shai Robkin, the head of the Atlanta-based America Israel Business Connector, said the governor’s visit sends a message to Israeli executives that could “reverberate throughout the business community.”

It’s a two-way street. Members of Deal’s delegation, which includes Georgia Power Chief Executive Paul Bowers and Metro Atlanta Chamber President Hala Moddelmog, are visiting tech firms and manufacturing plants across the nation — and taking notes at each stop.

“As other companies have established research and development centers in Israel, perhaps some of the participants will consider further or new developments,” came the not-so-subtle suggestion from Opher Aviran, Israel’s Atlanta-based consul general.

From the cabinet to the kitchen

Caesarstone started in the 1980s in a struggling kibbutz, or collective farm, in the ancient town of Caesarea on Israel’s northern coast. After years of tinkering with the manufacturing formula, the company’s fortunes surged in the 1990s, and it soon began making more inroads into international markets.

The company’s two plants in Israel pound and polish massive slabs of stone into smooth quartz each day, marketing them to upscale bathroom and kitchen decorators. Executives wanted their next plant, though, to be closer to North American customers to meet increased demand.

After a six-month search, executives narrowed down their choices to a site near Savannah and two other nearby locations. Eli Feiglin, the company’s marketing guru, told the delegation that the Georgia site was picked because of its proximity to the port and its skilled workforce.

“We’re here to stay, and we hope to continue to invest in the U.S. market,” Feiglin said.

Georgia officials hope that message echoes later this week during a seminar to be attended by dozens of Israeli executives.

“It’s paying off,” said Ronen Kenan, who runs Georgia’s trade office in Israel. “Slowly and surely, more people are hearing about us.”