Top Business: 2014 in Review

No need for any drum rolls, let’s just do this. The top business stories for 2014 in Alabama, according to a consensus of Business Alabama editors and staffers.

Remington Outdoor Co. comes to Alabama. State and local governments in Huntsville put up $69 million in February for a factory that will employ up to 2, 100 people. Remington has since announced plans to move jobs from New York, a state that passed the strictest gun laws in the nation, barring semi-automatic weapons like the Bushmaster models made by Remington. Steyr Arms opens a 33, 000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Bessemer in April. A division of Austria’s Steyr Mannlicher, they import hunting and sporting rifles and handguns and do some assembly at the Bessemer facility. A slew of suppliers is expected to follow.

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International employees celebrate the first new C-Class off the line in Tuscaloosa County.

Photo by Cary Norton

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 rolls out the first C-Class sedan from its Vance plant in June. Sales of Mercedes SUVs remain brisk, and the automaker makes plans for 10 hybrid versions of its most popular models. Honda Motor Co. is crowned the first net exporter among Japanese automakers, exporting more cars in 2013 from the U.S. than it imported, including the newly redesigned Acura MDX from its Talladega County assembly line. Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo visits his Montgomery plant in August, where production was at near-record levels all year. The plant rolled out 35, 709 Sonata and Elantra vehicles in September alone. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama announces in May it will expand its Huntsville engine facility to increase North American production of V6 engines. The investment of about $80 million will bring total plant investment to more than $700 million.

James McManus, CEO of Birmingham-based Energen Corp., said the $1.6 billion sale of Energen’s natural gas utility, Alagasco, to St. Louis-based Laclede Group was driven by the stock market’s preference for focused enterprise. “The financial markets are rewarding corporate clarity, ” he said.

Photo by Art Meripol

Japan’s Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. purchases Birmingham’s Protective Life Corp. for $5.7 billion in June. Since the beginning of 2014, notes, the stock is up 40.8 percent, significantly higher than the S&P 500’s increase of 11.3 percent over the same time frame, as PLC becomes an international player. Alagasco is sold for $1.6 billion to The Laclede Group of St. Louis, but parent Energen Corp. will stay in Birmingham. The Alabama Education Association sees political reverses and takes criticism from its retired longtime leader, Paul Hubbert. Shortly thereafter Hubbert dies and is hailed for his visionary leadership.

Multimillion-dollar impacts from sports, ranging from the new Proving Grounds completed in October at the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum to the Magic City Classic, Birmingham CrossPlex, Reese’s Senior Bowl and Airbus LPGA Classic. Craft beer grows across the state, with local breweries adding new labels and hiring. The vaping industry became a $2 billion a year industry nationwide and it’s just getting started, with small-time operators opening shops across the state. Samford University begins construction on the Brock School of Business building in Birmingham. “Muscle Shoals, ” a 2013 documentary that celebrates Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios in the Tennessee Valley city, creates a tourism trail for music lovers seeking out the roots of rock and roll. Milo’s Tea Co., of Bessemer, offers its first new flavors in eight years and widens distribution. Birmingham picked by as a Top 10 Downtown after a park redesign kicks off a series of revitalization projects and the arrival of a Publix. Big-time Hollywood movies such as “Selma” are filmed and “Bus 657” brings Robert De Niro fever to Mobile. Alabama beaches again attract record crowds, suggesting that oil spill memories are fading. ServisFirst Bank goes public in May and sees solid growth.

Raw steel slabs are unloaded at AM/NS Calvert in north Mobile County. Improvements are edging the mill closer to its 5.3 million metric ton capacity.

ArcelorMittal and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. bosses visit south Alabama in March to christen AM/NS Calvert, a former ThyssenKrupp plant, then proceed with a $46.7 million investment plan to achieve 5.3 million metric ton capacity. Evonik Corp., in Theodore, makes plans to ramp up employment and invest nearly $114 million in Mobile County. Boeing Co. continues with plans to relocate an engineering center to Alabama to save $100 million a year. International Automobile Components at McClellan plans a $22 million expansion that could add 359 jobs. Rehau breaks ground on a new high-tech research center to support its automobile component manufacturing in Cullman. Jack Daniel’s opens its new 150, 000-square-foot, $60 million barrel-making plant in Trinity. Auto supplier Bolta U.S. Inc. breaks ground on a $50 million plant in the Tuscaloosa Airport Industrial Park to produce chrome-plated plastic parts. Georgia-Pacific invests more than $375 million in a Brewton plant that produces linerboard
and cartonboard. Science and Engineering Services LLC will add 450 jobs in Huntsville over five years in a $70 million expansion of Alabama manufacturing operations. Vulcan Inc. completes an $18.5 million expansion of its aluminum mill in Foley.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who romps to re-election, says in September that a judge’s ruling that BP PLC caused the 2010 Gulf oil spill through reckless conduct could mean billions in damages because of additional civil penalties. The U.S. Supreme Court finds that whistleblower Edward Lane was wrongly fired at Central Alabama Community College for testifying truthfully that state Rep. Sue Schmitz of Toney was a no-show employee, being paid by taxpayers for no work. Judge rules accounting firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Crowe Horwath must deal with a lawsuit accusing them of malpractice for not catching fraud that collapsed Colonial Bank in 2009.

Navistar International Corp. moved its mid-range engine production from Huntsville to Melrose Park, Illinois, costing 280 jobs. The company continues to make 13-liter engines at its big bore engine plant in Huntsville.

BBVA Compass, a U.S. unit of Spain’s Banco Bilboa Vizcaya Argentaria, plans in January 2014 to lay off 600 U.S. employees, including 450 in Birmingham, over a two-year period. The bank declined to update any numbers. Regions is stung for $10 million in compensation over rate swaps. The National Wildlife Federation, in April, reports that bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles are dying in record numbers, evidence that Gulf of Mexico toxicity may be linked to the BP oil spill. Hillshire Brands stops production and cuts 1, 100 jobs at its Florence facility, saying it isn’t efficient to operate. Wayne Farms closes the deboning lines at its Dothan facility, cutting 560 jobs. The HON Co. closes its Florence furniture plant, which employed 190. Sears says it will close 100 stores in several states, including Alabama. Commercial truck maker Navistar International Corp. closes an engine plant in Huntsville, costing about 280 jobs. The World Leisure Congress meets for the first time on U.S. soil, promising some 4, 500 visitors from 60 countries, but only hundreds arrived in September despite a multiyear campaign. A request for numbers from the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau went unanswered. BAE Systems says in November it will shut down a plant in Cordova that produces ammunition magazines for Zumwalt-class destroyers, a loss of 20 jobs.

Evonik Corp. has a good relationship with Alabama that includes a new Innovation Center in Birmingham and an expanding specialty chemical plant in Mobile.

German-based Evonik Corp. chooses Birmingham as home to its first global Innovation Center in the U.S., creating 25 high-skilled jobs as it focuses on medical devices at Evonik’s corporate campus in Oxmoor Valley. Birmingham’s Applied Ultrasonics uses Soviet-born Cold War technology to strengthen aging metal in everything from oil rigs to bridges and submarines. Team including Jeremy Schmutz of Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology sequences genome of the common bean, a global staple, to identify genes involved in critical traits such as size, flavor, disease resistance and drought tolerance. University of Alabama in Huntsville researchers experiment with ways to 3-D print cellular structures for use in drug testing, while Polaris Sensor Technologies makes its first sensors completely by 3-D printing. Vista Engineering & Consulting develops diamond coatings for use in prosthetics, to increase their lifespans. Adtran of Huntsville develops next generation DSL tied to 100Mbps regulatory goals. University of Alabama at Birmingham and Southern Research Institute announce a new alliance to develop medical devices.

NASA unveiled the Vertical Assembly Center at its Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans last August. The center will assemble the Huntsville-designed Space Launch System meant to return the U.S. to manned space exploration.

Airbus changes gears to make the larger A321 jetliner instead of the previously announced A320 at its $600 million facility in Mobile, slated to begin production in 2015 and deliver its first plane in 2016. Carpenter Technology opens a $500 million plant in Limestone County to create high-tech alloys, mostly for aerospace and military use. Lockheed-Martin gets a $914.6 million contract for the U.S. Air Force’s Space Fence, a system of radars to track orbiting objects. The U.S. continues to rely on Soviets to get to space but NASA picks Boeing to develop the core stage of Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built, in a $2.8 billion contract. Marshall Space Flight Center keeps a hand in with several SLS projects.

Alabama steams in circles around the Affordable Care Act, with Gov. Robert Bentley refusing to expand Medicaid, saying it was a broken system, while the state’s hospital officials point to $1.4 billion in lost annual federal revenue. The 2014 Alabama Legislature disdains the feds while cashing federal checks for state entitlement programs and gets into a spirited Ten Commandments debate. The Republican-controlled chambers see victories, including a tax tribunal to hear taxpayer appeals and a rule requiring fewer businesses to pay estimated monthly sales taxes in advance instead of paying actual revenues collected. HB 490 prohibits abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected but a federal judge rules that Alabama’s 2013 abortion law, requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, is unconstitutional. A jury in October finds Republican Rep. Barry Moore of Enterprise not guilty of charges of perjury in the first trial to come out of an investigation targeting Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard. And Gov. Bentley gets an unpleasant surprise when workers at the Golden Dragon Copper Tube Co. in Wilcox County, which he’s bragged on for bringing much needed jobs, vote (barely) to unionize.

Henry Hagood, former CEO of the Alabama chapter of Associated General Contractors, passed away at age 69 on Feb. 9, 2014. Hagood started his career at AGC in 1969 at 24, working as the executive secretary. He retired as CEO in 2013.

By no means a comprehensive list: Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., Vietnam war hero and former U.S. senator; Henry Hagood, longtime former CEO of the Alabama Associated General Contractors of America; Henry W. (Hank) Hartsfield Jr., the first Alabamian to enter space; Paul Hubbert, retired Alabama Education Association chief; McDowell Lee, former longtime secretary of the Alabama State Senate; Alfred Henry “Buddy” Mitchell, former state finance director and former Auburn University official; J. Richmond Pearson, the first black circuit judge in Jefferson County and a civil rights activist; Ted Henry, long-time leader of Henry Brick and former Business Council of Alabama board member; Alice Lee, sister of the famous “To Kill a Mockingbird” author and an influential Alabama lawyer and church leader; Doug Hutcheson of Odenville, a 15-year UPS employee and Brian Callans of Birmingham, a
26-year UPS employee, both shot dead at their Birmingham workplace Sept. 23; Jose Raul Cardenas-Ramirez, 36, of Vestavia Hills, shot dead the same morning at Ross Bridge Golf
Resort and Spa.

HELLO, 2015
Obamacare may finally be sorted out as health reform moves forward, with or without the governor, though the U.S. Supreme Court could spike the whole thing when it rules on what happens when states don’t create insurance exchanges. Unless a deal is reached, Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard will stand trial for allegedly using his office for private gain. Redstone Arsenal will break ground on a massive renewable energy project. Airbus begins jetliner assembly in Mobile. Regions Bank expands its new concept branch, doing away with teller lines. Alabama Power Co. rates go up 5 percent Jan. 1, or about $5 a month for an average customer. Littoral combat ships of the sort made by Austal USA in Mobile get up-armored to satisfy program critics. Oxford Pharmaceuticals starts to build its manufacturing facility in Birmingham. Ford Motor Co.’s gamble to build an aluminum-sided F-150 is revealed as either brilliance or folly. Artur Davis runs for Montgomery mayor. 

Text by Dave Helms

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