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Top Stories of 2017

Factories rose, state unemployment hit a historic low and, for better or worse, Alabama made national headlines. Here’s our reckoning of the year’s top business stories.

Mercedes-Benz made enormous progress in its $1 billion expansion in Vance, where it will soon build electric SUVs for the company’s EQ brand. Mercedes has invested $5.8 billion in the mile-long plant.

Mercedes-Benz made enormous progress in its $1 billion expansion in Vance, where it will soon build electric SUVs for the company’s EQ brand. Mercedes has invested $5.8 billion in the mile-long plant.

BIG DOGS OF THE YARD

All was hush in late December as a decision was awaited from Toyota and Mazda on the lucky winner of their new $1.6 billion car factory. Likewise, Birmingham awaited an answer for its bid to be a second headquarters for Amazon, worth $5 billion and 50,000 jobs. Workers began tuning up GE Aviation’s new $200 million factory complex in Huntsville, where silicon carbide (SiC) materials will be mass produced to manufacture ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) for jet engines and turbines. IBM signed a $62 million deal to build, manage and operate a private cloud data center for the U.S. Army within Redstone Arsenal. Mercedes-Benz made enormous progress in its $1 billion expansion in Vance, where it will soon build electric SUVs for the company’s EQ brand. Toyota in September announced plans to invest $106 million and add 50 jobs at its Alabama engine plant. At the Dubai Air Show, Airbus got an order for more than 400 new jets, the largest single deal in the company’s history. Amazon opened a new sortation center in Mobile, creating hundreds of jobs at its first Alabama address, while Wal-Mart started construction of its new $135 million regional distribution center one exit down the road.

Bombardier’s C Series Touring in Europe
 

FLYING HIGH

Airbus spanked Boeing in October by moving to buy a controlling stake in Canadian jet-maker Bombardier, maker of the 150-seat C-series jetliner, potentially dodging a 300 percent tariff on the plane when it’s built in Mobile. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced in June that his private spaceflight company is planning to build a powerful new rocket engine in Alabama, a deal initially worth $200 million in conjunction with United Launch Alliance. Ground was broken on a new $16 million aerospace manufacturing plant for Aerojet Rocketdyne, to employ 800 people at a 136,000-square-foot plant in the North Huntsville Industrial Park to produce rocket engines using composites and additive manufacturing. Sikorsky snagged part of a $3.8 billion contract to help build more than 250 Black Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Army and foreign military customers. The U.S. Air Force gave Huntsville-based Dynetics a $10.9 million contract to deliver an initial batch of 70 GBU-69B Small Glide Munitions with options for 30 more. Germany-based Winkelmann Group in June announced plans for new subsidiary based on a $12 million investment to create a metal forming operation in Auburn. UTC Aerospace Systems, a unit of United Technologies Corp., in August unveiled a new 80,000-square-foot manufacturing and nacelle assembly facility in Foley, where it plans to expand to 1,000 employees. Boeing in May earned a potential five-year, $1.1 billion contract modification from the Missile Defense Agency to continue to provide development support for the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program. Dynetics Inc. is constructing a more than $14 million aerospace test facility near Decatur on United Launch Alliance property. Continental Motors said in March it will spend more than $60 million on a new facility at the Mobile Aeroplex to stay competitive in general aviation. Lockheed Martin in May got a $413.8 million contract from the U.S. Air Force for production of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range version. Yulista opened its 80,000-square-foot aviation hangar and support facility at the Huntsville Executive Airport in Meridianville.

Worker inspects the 5 millionth engine produced at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, in Montgomery.
 

ENGINES FULL AHEAD

Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in April started mass production of the all-new 2018 Honda Odyssey, built exclusively in Lincoln, and announced an $85 million investment in its manufacturing plant in Alabama to improve vehicle manufacturing flexibility and logistic efficiency for future models. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama in March celebrated its 5 millionth engine manufactured in Montgomery, less than 12 years after the plant made its first Lambda six-cylinder in May 2005. Indiana-based Autocar will invest $120 million to create a manufacturing operation plant in Birmingham to produce heavy-duty cab-over-engine trucks, creating 746 jobs. Briggs & Stratton Corp. said in October it would move production of its V-Twin Vanguard engines from Japan to its existing plants in Auburn and Georgia, creating 50 new jobs at each. Canadian bus maker New Flyer Industries Inc. made a $25 million investment in its Anniston campus, doing building renovations and purchasing new fabrication and welding equipment, along with an innovation center. Nemak Alabama plans to add 100 new jobs in Sylacauga through 2020, to build components that contribute to automotive lightweighting. Spain-based automotive supplier Grupo Antolin announced plans for a $10.4 million, 150-job facility in Birmingham, to be online by 2020.

GRABS & TAKEOVERS

Led by CEO Bill Smith III, Royal Cup Coffee continued its coast-to-coast growth by acquisition with the purchase of New Orleans-based Goodrich Gourmet.

Photo by Cary Norton

 

Birmingham-based Royal Cup Coffee acquired Goodrich Gourmet of New Orleans, maker of the Icebox brand of cold brew coffee and concentrates. Meredith Corp. in November announced plans to buy Time Inc., which publishes titles in Birmingham including Southern Living. Good People Brewing Co. acquired Avondale Brewing Co. in October. Northrop Grumman Corp., with its large Alabama aerospace presence, acquired aerospace and defense firm Orbital ATK Inc. Vulcan Materials Co. purchased Aggregates USA, a unit of Mill Valley, California’s SPO Partners, in a $900 million deal, as well as Polaris Materials Corp., an aggregates and logistics company in California. Michigan-based Gordon Food Service Inc. acquired Red Diamond Foodservice. An unnamed buyer for $12,500 purchased a batch of letters written by “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee to friend Felice Itzkoff. Beaulieu America closed down a portion of its operations in Bridgeport, due to the shift from carpet to hard surfaces in homes, but Mohawk Industries later acquired it with a plan to modernize the plant.

PARTS IS PARTS

SAS Automotive Systems announced a new operation in Tuscaloosa County to support Mercedes-Benz’s next-generation sport utility vehicles, adding 170 jobs.  German auto parts maker Bocar plans a new plant to employ 300 workers in the Huntsville area. Aluminum auto parts supplier Nemak USA plans a three-year expansion with a $34 million investment in Talladega and more than 60 new jobs. Polymer supplier Royal Technologies Corp. plans a $14 million expansion of its Cullman operation with 25 new jobs. Coca-Cola Bottling Company United took over numerous sales and distribution territories around the South. Frontier Spinning Mills planned to invest $6 million for fiber preparation and open-end spinning equipment, in addition to warehouse space, in Wetumpka. The U.S. Navy gave Raytheon in Huntsville a $235 million contract to build the SM-6 missile, mounted on ships to destroy a variety of targets.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey addresses the Southern Automotive Conference in Birmingham, where she announced the formation of the Southern Automotive Manufacturers Alliance.

Photo by Joe De Sciose

POLITICS OF BUSINESS

Gov. Kay Ivey announced the formation of the Southern Automotive Manufacturers Alliance at October’s Southern Automotive Conference in Birmingham, to initially consist of state automotive manufacturing organizations of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. Progressive challenger Randall Woodfin unseated Birmingham Mayor William Bell in a nonpartisan runoff election. Caddell Construction of Montgomery was picked by the Trump administration to build a concrete prototype for a border wall. President Donald Trump said he would stop German automakers from selling “millions of cars” in the U.S., adding Germans were “very bad,” though the Germans seemed unimpressed. On Goat Hill, Bentley-inspired megaprison construction failed, while redistricting, autism insurance and protection for Confederate monuments got a thumbs up. Jeff Sessions’ departure from the U.S. Senate to become attorney general strews chaos. Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was released from federal prison after serving about six years.

New cranes for APM Terminals make their way up the Mobile ship channel.

Photo by Brad McPherson

ON THE WATERFRONT

Austal USA in December was set to deliver USNS City of Bismarck, the ninth ship in Austal’s 12-ship Expeditionary Fast Transport contract valued at more than $1.9 billion. Austal’s Littoral Combat Ship program had a better year and the LCS design was examined with an eye toward frigates. Alabama mostly dodged major hurricanes Harvey and Irma but sent emergency relief teams and rebuilding supplies to both. Two giant container cranes arrived in Mobile in June after a two-month voyage from China and, after installation, began moving cargo through the APM Terminals facility.

New Provalus employees celebrate the company’s arrival in Brewton.

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

SMALL TOWN HAPPY

Jimmy Rane, Alabama’s beloved Yella Fella and its wealthiest resident, dedicated himself to saving historic buildings and revitalizing his hometown of Abbeville. Provalus, a company specializing in business tech support, picked Brewton for a $6.5 million business support center involving 300 hires. James Hardie Building Products will spend $220 million to open an advanced fiber-cement building products manufacturing plant in Prattville, creating 205 jobs. Wal-Mart partnered with Renfro Corp. in a bid to rebuild Fort Payne’s textile base. Netherlands-based aluminum company Constellium completed a recycling furnace at its Muscle Shoals aluminum facility, raising recycling capacity to 20 billion aluminum cans per year. Wayne Farms opened the $55 million South Alabama Feed Mill near Ozark to feed millions of chickens in the Wiregrass area, while Koch Foods planned a $40.5 million feed mill in Randolph County.

BANK ON IT

Regions Financial headquarters, Birmingham

 

Regions Financial Corp. surfed through its third quarter with positive operating leverage, seeing its reported pre-tax pre-provision income increasing 5 percent over the third quarter 2016. ServisFirst Bancshares opened its new headquarters, a 100,000-square-foot building in Homewood. Warren Averett Asset Management and Kinsight joined to create a firm worth $2.2 billion. The First Bancshares Inc. of Hattiesburg, Mississippi said it would acquire Southwest Banc Shares Inc. of Chatom for $60 million in stock and cash. Knoxville-based SmartBank in May agreed to pay $84.8 million in cash and stock to buy Capstone Bank in Tuscaloosa. Renasant Corp. entered the Mobile market. Avadian Credit Union and EBSCO Federal Credit Union, both headquartered in Birmingham, made plans to merge by 2018.

EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE

The University of Alabama set a new record for gifts and pledges received during a single fiscal year, raising more than $120 million for the 2016-17 period. Fifty years after Auburn University founded a school of business, the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business broke ground on a new building that will house graduate programs and classroom and meeting spaces for undergraduate and graduate students. Coastal Alabama Community College, a consolidation of Alabama Southern Community College, Faulkner State Community College and Jefferson Davis Community College, was born. Steven Leath was named as the president of Auburn University.

The Rolling Thunder roller coaster newly assembled in 2017 at Owa amusement park.
 

FUN, ALABAMA STYLE

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians in mid-summer opened Owa, a new $240 million amusement and entertainment destination in Baldwin County featuring rides, restaurants, shopping and more. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started a tour of America in Mobile, sampling fare at Wintzell’s Oyster House. RSA-owned properties ranked first, second and third in March for guest satisfaction of 363 full-service Marriotts in North and South America. The Grand Hotel in Point Clear saw a $32 million transformation. Milo’s Tea Co. expanded its footprint in Bessemer to five times the original dimensions. Big Escambia Spirits bottled Alabama-made bourbon at its distillery near Atmore. Conecuh Ridge Distillery, makers of Clyde May’s Whiskey, planned an artisan distillery, rackhouses and a bottling hub in Troy with tourism elements. Food & Wine magazine moved from New York City to Birmingham. Workers took a few minutes off in August to witness a solar eclipse.

POWER MOVES

Alabama’s newly reinstated Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit offset the investment risk of the $30 million Thomas Jefferson Tower renovation in downtown Birmingham.

 

Thomas Jefferson Towers, a $30 million redevelopment of one of Birmingham’s signature skyscrapers, reopened to residents. Steelmaker SSAB Americas, operator of a south Alabama mill, said it would move its head office from the Chicago area to Mobile. Georgia-Pacific Brewton in May finished a $388 million, two-year energy upgrade. Kimberly-Clark Corp. approved a $75 million investment to build a new on-site combined heat-power plant at its tissue mill in Mobile. A year of construction allowed Fort Rucker and Alabama Power Co. to reveal their new solar energy array to produce up to 10 megawatts of energy. Steyr Arms is investing $2.9 million to add a manufacturing component to its Bessemer assembly and distribution hub.

DISRUPTIONS, SETBACKS

The Alabama State Port Authority signed a five-year cooperation pact with the National Port Administration of Cuba in early 2017, but the Trump Administration signaled it would reverse Obama-era openness with the island. Aerospace and automotive supplier GKN in late 2016 issued a profit warning citing “probable” claims from customers for extra costs that could slice millions from the bottom line and blaming, in part, its Alabama plant that supplies Airbus and military customers. An international cyber attack from Europe disrupted computers at APM Terminals and forced things back to paper and pencil until work-arounds were made. Madison Square Mall in Huntsville, 120 stores strong at its peak, closed. Gander Mountain shuttered several stores as part of a bankruptcy restructuring. Women employed full time, year-round in Alabama were paid 76 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to a yearly gap of $10,747, according to Equal Pay Day. Birmingham law firm Bradley, formerly Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, laid off 28 people. Philip Henry Cooper of Birmingham, a former senior vice president at Regions Bank, pled guilty to conspiracy in a $5 million bribery and wire fraud scheme. Celebrity Chef John Besh left his restaurant group in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.

HEALTHY GROWTH

Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham began work on a 12-story parking deck and six-story office building in a $54 million investment. Doster Construction Co. began working on renovations to UAB Hospital Highlands in downtown Birmingham, converting the existing sports medicine gym to seven new exam rooms. HealthSouth Corp. expanded with its first facility in Mississippi, operating a 33-bed rehab hospital with Memorial Hospital in Gulfport.

Adtran headquarters in Cummings Research Park, Huntsville
 

TECHNICAL WONDER

Huntsville-based Adtran in August partnered with CenturyLink for a field trial of Adtran’s virtualized OTL 10G-PON solution, the first U.S.-based deployment of a software defined network for broadband. Montgomery leaders in June announced an upgrade to the capacity of its MGMix internet exchange to handle 100 gigabits per second of traffic. Google Fiber, Alphabet’s fast gigabit internet service, in May went operational in Huntsville, with help from Huntsville Utilities. Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center was tapped to study such cosmic mysteries as supermassive black holes and neutron stars, using the polarized X-ray radiation they emit. The University of South Alabama Medical Center acquired a “germ-zapping robot” called Xenex Lightstrike to find and destroy pathogens. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman asked University of Alabama in Huntsville students to help find better ways to kill drones. Envision Genomics named Grace E. Terrell, MD, as founding chief executive officer.

SADLY MISSED

Former Gov. Albert Brewer

 

Albert Preston Brewer, 88, who took over the office of governor in 1968 after Gov. Lurleen Wallace died of cancer, died in January. William W. Moss, 81, whose construction firm Moss-Thornton Co. helped Bill France Sr. create the signature Talladega Superspeedway in 1969, died in January. Business aviation pioneer Charles “Chuck” McKinnon, 101, founder and long-time manager of IBM’s flight department, died in Trussville in March. Coastal developer Tillis Mitchell Brett, 82, of Brett/Robinson real estate died in May. Roland Yearwood, a Butler County physician trying to climb Mount Everest in May, died not far from the mountain’s peak. Jim Nabors, beloved “Andy Griffith” star and Sylacauga native, died in November.

EXPORTING ALABAMA

Lucy Buffett took Southern gumbo to Manhattan, serving it out of a food truck to unsuspecting Yankees in celebration of her new book, “Gumbo Love.” Caddell Construction Co., based in Montgomery, won a $165 million contract for the construction of the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay and later won projects in Nairobi, Kenya; Mexico City, Mexico, and Athens, Greece worth a combined $915.4 million. Metallurgical coal exporter Warrior Met Coal Inc. made its initial public offering of 16,666,667 shares of common stock at $19 per share in April.

THINGS THAT STUNG

Staring impeachment in the face, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned in April, pleading guilty to two misdemeanors and agreeing to never hold public office again. Indictments in the bribery case of former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson touched one of Alabama’s most influential companies as Drummond Co. Vice President David Lynn Roberson pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud, one count of bribery, three counts of honest services wire fraud and one count of money laundering conspiracy. Two attorneys and partners at Balch & Bingham — Joel Iverson Gilbert and Steven George McKinney — also pleaded not guilty. After 58 years of serving customers and constantly reinventing itself, beloved toy store Southerland Station of Huntsville closed in February. Lakeland Community Hospital, the only hospital in Winston County, was set to close by the end of the year. Thousands of chickens met untimely deaths after bird flu struck in March, leading to euthanizations.

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