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Top Stories of 2016

Presidential election years are never dull and 2016 proved monumental on a number of fronts. These are our picks for top business stories of the year.

ABOVE JetBlue nacelle made for Airbus at the UTC Aerospace Systems’ Aerostructures facility in Foley.
 

Big Movers

It took more than three decades of construction and a billion dollars, but the final phase of Interstate 22 opened last summer, connecting Birmingham to Memphis. Austria-based Kronospan, a leading manufacturer of wood-based panel products, in June said it would invest $362 million to expand its Calhoun County operations and add 160 jobs. UTC Aerospace Systems announced an estimated 260 new jobs in Baldwin County with an expansion to its Foley site. In June, Austrian automotive supplier Voestalpine Body Parts Inc. said it would open an $11.1 million Birmingham facility creating 42 jobs. California-based Golden State Foods Corp. began building a $63 million state-of-the-art meat processing facility in northeast Opelika, to create 173 jobs. Southern Power, a Birmingham-based green subsidiary of Southern Co., now has 10,600 megawatts of generation capacity, including more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable capacity developed or acquired since 2012. Vulcan Materials Co. in November reported net earnings of $371 million, a gain of 118 percent over the trailing 12-month period. Forbes magazine proclaimed Jimmy Rane, the “Yella Fella” of Great Southern Wood, to be the richest Alabamian, taking the place of the late Marguerite Harbert. 

We Have Liftoff

The 2012 vision of Airbus building planes in Alabama took flight in March when the first A-321 built in Mobile ascended from the $600 million, 53-acre Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. Aerojet Rocketdyne leaders in June said they would relocate the company’s Rocket Shop to Huntsville, doubling the company’s presence in the Rocket City. GE Aviation broke ground on two factories in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County, a $200 million investment to employ 300 people producing silicon carbide materials for jet parts. Northrop Grumman Corp. in June exceeded $1 billion in work subcontracted to small businesses under a U.S. Missile Defense Agency program. NASA’s first deep space RS-25 rocket engine fired up for 500 seconds for the first time in March, putting the Space Launch System effort being designed out of Huntsville that much closer to Mars. Huntsville solidified ties with Colorado space company Sierra Nevada, in hopes of one day landing the Dream Chaser spaceship on a regular basis. Boeing Strategic Missile & Defense Systems, at a June groundbreaking, said it would add about 70 jobs in Huntsville with an expansion of its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 Missile Seeker program.

ABOVE Mercedes-Benz began building its sporty, high-performance GLE Coupe at its Vance facility in April to compete with the BMW X6. 
 

Deals on Wheels

German auto supplier Gerhardi Kuntstofftechnik had a July groundbreaking on a $37.9 million manufacturing facility, creating 235 jobs in Montgomery at its first North American manufacturing site. German supplier Eissmann Automotive in June announced a $14.5 million expansion to create 200 new jobs at its Pell City facility.

Mercedes-Benz regularly outsold its main rival BMW through 2016, winning the title of biggest luxury carmaker in the world by sales. Honda celebrated completion of its 4 millionth vehicle from Lincoln in 2016 and introduced its redesigned Ridgeline pickup in January. Polaris Industries began producing Rangers and Slingshots at its new Limestone County plant last summer, against the backdrop of what CEO Scott Wine called a weaker retail sales environment. Toyota Motor Corp. announced in December it would expand efforts on gasoline-hybrid technology over the next five years to satisfy stricter global-emissions standards. Korean automaker Hyundai marked its 11th year of building cars in Alabama and now employs 3,000 people working around the clock, with a statewide impact of $4.82 billion in 2014. Wal-Mart will build a super-regional import distribution center in Mobile, promising 550 full-time jobs. Lear Operations Corp. was looking for 500 new workers last fall to build seats for Mercedes’ GLE and GLS sport utility vehicles.

Marching Forward

Birmingham businessman Raymond Harbert pledged $15 million to build a new home for the Auburn University business school that bears his family name. Alabama tractor manufacturer CleBer last fall received its U.S. license to sell Alabama-made construction and agricultural components to the Cuban government, and perhaps eventually make them in Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Development Zone. Weyerhaeuser has plans to substantially upgrade its softwood lumber mill in Millport. Mobile-based fiber optic provider Southern Light recently won its first University of Alabama contract. The Alabama Department of Revenue successfully required Amazon to begin collecting a flat 8 percent sales tax from Alabama shoppers. Voters in Clay County’s Ashland and Lineville voted decisively for alcohol sales, meaning the state’s last completely dry county is no more. Remington Outdoor met its 2016 hiring and wage milestones in Huntsville, but a gun-friendly Trump administration is expected to do little to drive up stock prices for firearms companies. 

Bank on It

The stock of Birmingham-based Regions Financial Corp. hit a new 52-week high in late November and surged 34.09 percent in the past year. The company shuttered its last branch in Virginia earlier this year, its branch footprint going from 16 states to 15. Shares of ServisFirst Bancshares Inc. also reached a new 52-week high in November, hitting a peak of $74.26. The company now has a market cap of $1.94 billion.

ABOVE Carnival’s Fantasy awaits passengers in November at the Port of Mobile.
 

On the Waterfront

Carnival Cruise Lines came back to Mobile in November, ending a five-year drought of regular cruise ship calls. Austal USA got orders for two more Expeditionary Fast Transport ships in October, bringing the total program contract to $1.9 billion, but faced scrutiny from Congress as its Littoral Combat Ships struggled with cost and performance issues. In December, the U.S. Navy requested authorization to build the final 12 LCS of 40 ships, down from the original 52. The Van Antwerp Building, just two blocks off the water in Mobile, was rescued from degradation by the Retirement Systems of Alabama; Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood, and Doster Construction. City and county officials OK’d a $5 million contribution to Meridian at The Port, a $46.5 million, privately owned apartment complex on Water Street.

ABOVE Owa, an upscale amusement park and resort, is coming to Baldwin County.
 

Glorious Victories

Global auto supplier MollerTech recently began moving dirt on its $46.3 million manufacturing facility near Woodstock in Bibb County, a facility that will create 220 jobs by 2019, making SUV parts for Mercedes-Benz. HealthSouth broke ground in November on its new corporate headquarters on 20 acres in Birmingham’s Liberty Park, with plans to open the new place in spring 2018. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians in November announced plans for Owa, a $241 million amusement park and multiuse complex north of Gulf Shores to open Memorial Day. Forestry company Canfor said it would move its U.S. headquarters from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Mobile. Rehau Construction, maker of polyethylene pipes, plans a $5 million expansion in Cullman. Huntsville-based Brown Precision Inc. will invest $7 million to open a new facility in Atmore to do fabrication and component coating.

Stinging Defeats

Gov. Robert Bentley spent much of 2016 turning away questions from reporters about a sex scandal with a former adviser that also troubled his administration and brought unwelcome national coverage in 2015. At one point Bentley told reporters at a press conference he would not respond to impeachment questions. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was removed from office in mid-May for ordering state judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some wonder if Moore is courting disenfranchised voters for a Trump-style gubernatorial run. Not to be outdone, former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was sentenced in July to four years in prison, along with eight years on probation and a $210,000 fine for 12 felony ethics violations. 

So Technical

Google said construction would begin in 2016 at Bridgeport, Alabama on its $600 million data center but little happened, leading to one of the year’s saddest business quotes: “They just don’t tell us a lot,” from a chamber official. Advanced Optical Systems Inc. saw its no-touch fingerprint scanner ANDI OTG get a cameo role in last summer’s superspy thriller “Jason Bourne” from Universal Pictures. Adtran demonstrated the industry’s first open and multi-vendor virtual Customer Premise Equipment (vCPE), cloud-based network software that could one day replace all those blinking boxes in your company’s network room.

Protective oil booms guard Sand Island Lighthouse at the mouth of Mobile Bay after the 2010 BP spill.

Photo by Dan Anderson

 

Sums, Settlements

BP PLC agreed to a $1 billion settlement with the state of Alabama for its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Lawmakers promptly thought stopgap and sent $400 million to repay transfers from the Alabama Trust Fund that had been propping up the state budget since 2009. Another $120 million was earmarked for Medicaid for 2017 and 2018. Pennsylvania snack food company Utz Quality Foods closed its $135 million deal to acquire Birmingham-based Golden Enterprises. PricewaterhouseCoopers attorneys and a defunct mortgage company’s creditors and investors settled a lawsuit in September involving audits at the failed Colonial Bank. 

Downright Reversals

U.S. Steel in March laid off another 200 union employees at its Fairfield works in Birmingham and a planned electric arc furnace, to provide 300 jobs, was put on hold. Verizon Communications Inc. in November announced plans to move 175 jobs from Huntsville to Maryland but in December said it would be hiring big in 2017. BAE Systems Shipyard in Mobile feared as many as 200 layoffs, about half its employees, last fall due to reduced shipbuilding work, but the final number wasn’t quite that bad, an official said. ITT Technical Institute closed its doors in 2016 nationwide, including several Alabama locations. Nemak Alabama’s Sylacauga plant, which makes cylinder heads and blocks, laid off 203 employees in October. Grede Casting Integrity of Bessemer closed in July, costing 177 jobs. Chicago-based Amsted Rail laid off 155 workers at its Bessemer wheel facility. Shaw Industries Group cut 183 jobs in DeKalb County. Iconic Southern doughnut chain Krispy Kreme was sold in May to Keurig owner JAB Holding Co. of Germany for $1.35 billion. Colonial Pipeline suffered two disruptions in late 2016 near Birmingham, including an explosion that killed a worker and an earlier leak spilled up to 336,000 gallons of gasoline.

Sadly Missed

Celebrated Alabamians who died in 2016 included Harper Lee, beloved author of “To Kill A Mockingbird;” Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, the American Franciscan nun who formed cable giant EWTN; Alabama coal titan Garry Drummond, who served as Drummond Co.’s chairman and CEO for more than 50 years; Doyle Owens, who founded Scottsboro’s Unclaimed Baggage Center; Thornton Dial, a folk artist who used everyday objects to symbolize the experience of African Americans in the South, and Dallas Fanning, the city planner credited with shaping modern Huntsville.

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