Pulaski County is ready to court international companies

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Jonathan Sweet (left) and Michael Solomon. Photos by Don Petersen

Pulaski County might not be the first Virginia community people associate with international business, but maybe it should be. The county, with a population of 35,000, is home to eight companies based outside the U.S.

“We’ve got Sweden, Australia, Colombia, Poland, Mexico, Canada, Germany and Brazil, and we’ve got more in the pipeline,” says County Administrator Jonathan Sweet.

Sweden is the big contributor on that list. Located in Dublin, Va., Volvo Trucks’ largest manufacturing plant has more than 3,000 employees. According to the Virginia Employment Commission, that’s more workers than any other industry sector in the county.

Altogether, Sweet says, international companies account for more than 4,000 Pulaski County jobs. Those are direct jobs, Sweet emphasizes, not a number generated by a multiplier formula.

“That is huge,” he says. “In fact, there are some communities that don’t have 4,000 jobs in Southwest Virginia … That’s the statistic. We’ve got more jobs associated with international companies than we do with national companies.

“Some of it we’ve been fortunate to have a little luck on our side, but what we’re trying to do is parlay our success and market our success and increase our success when it comes to international business.”

One of those international companies grows vegetables indoors. In addition to making trucks, the others manufacture siding, Keurig cups, candles, high-tech fabrics, and industrial foam and tape.

Volvo came to Dublin first as a partner with White Motor Co., then as the owner of the former White plant. Now the Swedish company is an important part of the region’s economy. And it’s presence makes a good argument for courting international investment.

“We’ve got the foundation,” Sweet says. “We’re just looking to build more blocks, put more stories on the foundation.”

Experience with foreign companies has helped Pulaski County be sensitive to “nuances and specifics” of other cultures. Good relationships with foreign companies already doing business in Pulaski County mean the county has good ambassadors for international prospects.

Another very important ingredient, Sweet says, is “a board of supervisors and an economic development authority that get it.”

The supervisors have committed funds to establish an International Baccalaureate program in county schools.

“We’re really working to build an ex-pat community,” says Economic Development Director Michael Solomon.

Many things have contributed to Pulaski County’s ability to attract foreign investment, says Sweet. The U.S. is stable, and there’s relatively little corruption. Recent tax changes that favor corporations help, he says, along with the recent threat of tariffs on foreign goods.

Some companies are considering moving operations to the United States so they can keep their piece of the U.S. market.

Sweet and Solomon say Pulaski County’s people are also important assets, as workers and as neighbors.

“We just have really good people,” Solomon says. “People are kind here. They’re welcoming, and I think sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle. … I really feel like that’s a big thing to our secret sauce. I think that goes for the whole region.”

Before he came to Pulaski County, Sweet was Carroll County’s economic development director. He also has been a project manager for Danville. In Bland and Grayson counties, he served as county administrator and chief economic development officer.

His international interests began early. Sweet’s mother was born in Spain, and he grew up traveling to Europe to visit family.

Sweet now travels for Pulaski County. On a visit to Volvo headquarters in Sweden, he and his team met with 15 companies. He also met with U.S. ambassadors and U.S. Virginia trade officials. In less than two years as Pulaski County’s administrator, Sweet also has visited Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia and Brazil.

Those trips, Sweet says, are not about county-to-business contacts. They’re about people-to-people connections.

“A lot of these communities, particularly in Southwest Virginia, are waiting for a knock at the door,” Sweet says. “That’s not what we are doing.”

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