Catching up With … Stuart Countess President and CEO
Countess has been in the auto industry for nearly 30 years, 15 of those at Kia Georgia in West Point. He was named president and CEO in late 2021. These are edited highlights from an interview.
Q Tell us about Kia’s impact on the region.
A When we arrived [Kia began production in 2009], we immediately had an available workforce. Unemployment was in the 13% range. Today, like every other place in the state, we’re looking for more workforce to come into the area. Unemployment is about 3%. That is a vast change.
It’s very typical [for] automotive plants like ours to bring additional jobs and opportunities with [us]. Not only do we have what we’ve done [3,000 employees in the West Point facility], but we’ve created an additional 14,000-plus jobs in support of us. Most of that comes from the supply bases located either on our own campus or within a 50- to 75-mile radius.
Congressman [Drew] Ferguson, who was mayor of West Point when Kia came, tells a story about the transformation of the West Point area. Now it’s got thriving businesses, restaurants and other stores and Point University. I like to think that we had an integral part in that.
Q And how has Kia changed?
A Kia was not a well-recognized brand in the U.S. when we came here. We were just a little bit above 3% market share. This past year, we’re at almost 9% market share.
Q Where are Georgia-manufactured Kias sold?
A Our work is primarily in North America. We export some to Central and South America, small volumes. The U.S. is by far the largest consumer of our products. We export into Canada and Mexico.
We’re the only factory in the world that makes the [Kia Telluride]. We also make the Sorento, the Sportage and the K5. The Telluride we do export outside continental North America to Egypt.
Q How does the state support Kia and other manufacturers?
A The support is ongoing since day one. They’re always asking, “What can we do to help you create more jobs in Georgia?” Quick Start is the primary agency that we use because vehicle technologies change. When we have to reskill or skill-up individuals to the newest and latest technologies, they have been a great partner in doing so.
The governor has this initiative called the EMIA, which is the Electric Mobility Innovation Alliance. And that was all centered around how do we grow jobs in Georgia, specifically in the EV space. They asked us to be a leader in one of five strategic areas. I believe that that’s a very good signal about how they value the companies [that are already in Georgia].
Q Where is the auto industry going next in Georgia?
A Certainly, the EV space is the big growth area. A lot of problems are starting to get solved, like range anxiety, not knowing how far I could go on a battery charge. So there are a lot of initiatives about getting charging stations put throughout the state. The growth has gone from about 3% up to [about] 6% this past year. I think that’s showing consumer confidence. We have to continue to educate the consumer and make them feel comfortable.
Q What’s your biggest challenge?
A Workforce. In rural Georgia, it really is a challenge. We used to recruit people in about a 50-mile radius. We’re out to 125 miles now. We have to focus on our education systems. If we talk to someone about a career, and you don’t know if you want postsecondary education, then come work for us. While you’re making those decisions, we can help you build a career. And, by the way, we probably have tuition reimbursement programs. We’ve got to come up with unique ideas on how to recruit people in this area.
Q Are you optimistic about the future in Georgia?
A Truthfully, it’s amazing what the state of Georgia is doing. It takes leadership, and it takes partnership. There’s a willingness, from what I see. We should all be excited about the future.