Alabama’s Top Industries: Where the State Excels

Alabama’s top industries in medical research, automotive, forestry, sports venues, iron and steel, greenhouse and nursery products, workforce training, construction, space and rockets, ships, sports medicine, and broilers.

Medical Research

It would be hard to say when the world really took notice of the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a medical care and research institution. But it might have been in 1966 when Dr. John Kirklin, a Harvard-educated heart surgeon, left the Mayo Clinic in favor of UAB and put it on the map as a leader in cardiovascular surgery and care. 

UAB has performed more than 30, 000 open-heart surgeries since then and currently does 1, 500 a year. It is also one of the three largest kidney transplant centers in the nation, having performed more than 5, 000 kidney transplants since 1968. 

UAB’s kidney program has done more living donor transplants than any other program in the United States. 

UAB researchers were the first to perform clinical trials with an early protease inhibitor mixed in the “triple drug cocktail” used to fight HIV. More recently, UAB research discovered the protein that led to the development of Viagra and the spawning of the so-called second sexual revolution.

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UAB has formed partnerships with Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Birmingham-based Southern Research, both of which are “world-class research institutions whose discoveries are having a tremendous impact on human health, ” according to UAB President Ray Watts, who formerly served as dean of UAB’s Medical School.

“Collaborations between UAB and these institutions are proving to be extremely valuable, from leveraging our combined strengths to garner private and public research funding to contributing to the ability of all three institutions to attract and retain top scientists to Alabama, ” Watts says.

Adding to the state’s medical research retinue is Mobile’s Mitchell Cancer Institute, which opened in 2008. MCI represents the largest single research endeavor in the history of the University of South Alabama, with a total investment of more than $135 million, including $85 million in construction and equipment. In the past 18 months, MCI treated 9, 400 cancer patients, which represented more than 50, 000 visits. Among the priorities at MCI is expanding research that could lead to early detection and pre-diagnosis treatment of pancreatic cancer. 


By any account, Alabama’s auto industry is in high gear. In fact, Business Facilities magazine says Alabama is the strongest automotive manufacturing state in the U.S., based on “accelerated job growth, production gains and the potential for expansion.”

Alabama’s auto manufacturers — Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (Tuscaloosa County), Hyundai (Montgomery) and Honda (Lincoln) — produced more vehicles than ever in 2014. Total production was 997, 270 vehicles, up by 80, 000 from 2013. Toyota, meanwhile, has made more than 3 million engines at its Huntsville facility, including 540, 000 in 2013. 

Alabamians must be pretty good at making cars and engines because all of those companies have expanded their original facilities here, significantly increasing their work forces and creating an industry that didn’t exist a generation ago.

Less noticed in the big picture perhaps, but still hugely important have been automotive industry suppliers who also have located — and in some cases expanded — plants in Alabama. Rehau’s plant in Cullman County, for example, is growing to include a product design and research center — the European company’s first such facility in North America.

Oh, by the way, Alabama exported $6.5 billion in vehicles to 99 countries last year, making it the fourth-largest automotive exporter in the United States. Automotive exports led all others in the state.


With the third most timberland of the lower 48 states, Alabama benefits greatly from timber and fiber-related industries.

It’s not going out on limb to say that Alabama can see the forest for the trees. Not only do forest products represent a major industry in the state, but Alabama is doing it right. That is, the state is growing more timber — both hard and softwoods — than it’s harvesting.

According to the Alabama Forestry Commission, Alabama has the third most timberland in the lower 48 states, behind Oregon and Georgia. There are 23 million acres of timberland in the state, covering almost 70 percent of the total land area. According to the AFC Annual Report, the state’s forest industry produced an estimated $11.3 billion worth of products in 2010.

The loblolly and shortleaf pine forest type represents 38 percent of the total timberland area, followed by the oak/hickory forest type at 31 percent. Pine plantations represent 30 percent of the timberland.

According to the AFC, for every cubic foot of softwoods (pine) harvested from 2001-2013, Alabama grew 1.35 cubic feet. For every cubic foot of hardwoods (oak, hickory and the like) harvest, 1.67 cubic feet were grown. Overall, the report says Alabama grew 42 percent more timber than it harvested during that time.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension Service counts 122, 000 jobs in timber production and processing.

Regions Field, in the Southside community of Birmingham, is home to the Birmingham Barons baseball team.

Sports Venues

In Alabama, sports venues comprise an All-Star lineup of their own.

1. Barber Motorsports Park: 830 acres in the rolling countryside near Leeds that includes multi-purpose racing and spectator-friendly viewing areas that rate a 12 out of 10; the facility’s vintage motorsport museum is over-the-top cool.

2. Lakeshore Foundation, Homewood: Provides an array of sports activities, therapy and motivational atmosphere for people with disabilities, from infants to elite athletes; designated by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2003 as an official Olympic and Paralympic Training Site — a feather in Alabama’s cap.

3, 4. (tie) Jordan-Hare Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium: Both become cities on game day and one is a better fan experience than the other, depending on who’s doing the talking.

5. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: 468 championship holes on 26 golf courses at 11 sites throughout Alabama. Says The New York Times: “The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is some of the best public golf on Earth.”

6. Talladega Superspeedway: A revered track and out-of-body experience for racing fans.

7. Birmingham CrossPlex: Had to be a factor in Birmingham’s selection as the site for the 2021 World Games. Cutting-edge everything. Track and field venue holds 4, 000; Olympic size swimming pool venue holds 1, 400; nine volleyball courts; a 5, 000-seat basketball arena and a flexible platform to develop other sports.

8. Regions Park: Home of the Southern League Birmingham Barons with impressive views of the city’s urban landscape. The Montgomery Biscuits’ Riverwalk Park is another grand-slam venue.

9. Alabama’s abundance of lakes, rivers and coastal waters: a treasure trove of fresh and saltwater fishing locations that catch anglers hook, line and sinker; and, oh, should we mention the water skiing, canoeing and kayaking?

10. Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, Birmingham: 5, 000 sports artifacts laid out in an awesome smorgasbord of displays, featuring every famous sports figure in Alabama from the fast-running Jesse Owens to the fast-pitching Satchel Paige.

Stainless steel makes its way through the melt shop at Outokumpu Stainless USA in north Mobile County.

Iron and Steel

There was a time when Jefferson County dominated Alabama’s iron and steel industries. Blessed with the natural resources — iron ore, coal and limestone — needed to make steel, Jefferson County became the South’s center for heavy manufacturing following the Civil War. The population in the county seat of Birmingham, which wasn’t even incorporated until 1871, skyrocketed to 180, 000 in 1920.

U.S. Steel emerged as the largest manufacturer and employer in Birmingham, at one time employing as many as 40, 000 people. But major changes began in the 1970s with the decline of the American steel industry, as foreign competitors decimated U.S. Steel and other domestic producers. New players appeared in Alabama, though, and the state now has more than 1, 100 metal manufacturers that employ more than 50, 000 people, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce. 

U.S. Steel in January announced plans for a massive layoff of up to 1, 840 workers at its Alabama plants in Fairfield. The move will temporarily shut down operations making tubular steel for the oil exploration industry, which has been rocked by the 50 percent drop in crude oil prices since July.

The largest steel manufacturer and steel recycler in North America, North Carolina-based Nucor, is now the leading steel producer in Alabama. Nucor has three steel-manufacturing mills in Alabama — in Tuscaloosa, Trinity and Birmingham — and owns two other steel-based businesses in the state.

Relative newcomers include the two largest steel companies in the world, ArcelorMittal and Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal, who jointly own a plant near Mobile that’s recognized as one of the world’s most advanced steel finishing facilities. The plant, AM/NS Calvert, has the capacity to process 5.3 million tons of flat-rolled carbon steel annually. Also in Calvert, a plant owned by Finnish producer Outokumpu is designed to produce a million tons of stainless steel a year. In nearby Axis, SSAB’s steel plant brings another 1.25 million tons of steel-production capacity to the table.

Although it no longer dominates, Birmingham remains a heavy manufacturing area. As this issue of Business Alabama goes to press, U.S. Steel maintains a presence there with annual steelmaking capacity of 2.4 million tons at the last of the integrated-system mills in the state. The company also has 750, 000 tons of tubular products production capacity in Birmingham, and CMC Steel has another 2.8 million tons of capacity in the city.

Birmingham is also home for U.S. Pipe and Foundry and American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO), both of which are major producers of ductile iron pipe up to 64 inches in diameter for water and wastewater systems throughout the country. ACIPCO also manufactures steel pipe used in the oil and natural gas industries. 

Mueller Company has manufactured more than 3 million fire hydrants in Albertville since 1975, prompting the city to hail itself as the “Fire Hydrant Capital of the World.” M&H Valve, owned by Birmingham-based McWane Inc., has manufactured valves and fire hydrants in Anniston since 1929. McWane also owns Tyler Union, which makes waterworks fittings in

And in the mix of international giants are Alabama household names — Birmingham-based O’Neal Industries, for example, is the largest family-owned group of metals service centers in the United States.

Greenhouse & Nursery Products

Nurseries of Union Springs-based Bonnie Plants, one of the largest suppliers of plants to the big box garden centers across the country.

Greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production is more than a budding industry in Alabama. Together, products in those categories rank third among the state’s agricultural commodities, behind poultry/eggs and cattle. They generate $237 million in invoiced sales, more than cotton, soybeans, grains or catfish production, according to a 2013 Alabama Cooperative Extension Service report. 

Another study cited by the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association says the ornamental horticulture industry, including landscaping, contributes $2.9 billion and 44, 000 jobs to the state’s economy.

South Alabama has long been known as the “azalea capital” of the United States, and most of the state’s nursery production is in Mobile and Baldwin counties. But ornamental horticulture exists in every county of the state, ranging from small home-based businesses to larger growers with extensive distribution networks. Union Springs-based Bonnie Plants, for example, was started as a home operation in 1918 but now has more than 70 greenhouse locations throughout the country. The company has 500 sales representatives servicing more than 10, 000 accounts with vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Turf is a hot commodity here, too, and a big chunk from Bent Oak Farm in Foley took center stage as the playing field for Super Bowl XLIX.

The AIDT’s Maritime Training Center in Mobile educates a new generation of skilled workers in industrial, maritime and emerging technologies.

Workforce Training

Alabama is right proud of its workforce training and pleased as punch to get the nod from outside experts, too. Area Development magazine, which has been published since 1964, ranks the state of Alabama 4th in the nation in workforce development training programs.

The state’s primary source for workforce training, AIDT — which originated as Alabama Industrial Development Training — has trained more than 650, 000 people. It has played a key role in preparing workers needed in various industries, including automotive, shipbuilding and steel.

AIDT has six training centers throughout the state, the most recent of which opened in Birmingham. The five other centers are in Huntsville (automotive suppliers); Tanner (robotics); Opelika (forest products development); and two in Mobile (maritime training at one and aviation, chemical and telecommunications at the other). 

AIDT also has project-based training facilities around the state at Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Outokumpu Steel. AIDT will also operate the Alabama Aviation Training Center in Mobile, scheduled to open this summer.

According to Michelle Bowden, communications and marketing coordinator at Austal USA in Mobile, “AIDT is one of the most powerful economic development tools available to any business in the state of Alabama. The support provided by the state in the area of workforce development through the AIDT program has been instrumental in Austal’s ability to grow our workforce and gain the necessary skills to support our shipbuilding programs.” 

Other key players in Alabama’s workforce training include the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) and the Alabama Technology Network, which is part of ACCS and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

The new 1-million-square-foot Grandview Medical Center, under construction on U.S. Highway 280 near the Shelby County line, is a $300 million investment. Brasfield & Gorrie and A.G. Gaston are the construction managers on the project.


Let’s build a case for Alabama’s construction industry.

Take, as one of many examples, that Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie built the concrete structure for the 70, 000-seat Georgia Dome. And it was actually built ahead of schedule, in 10 months instead of 12. Also, Brasfield & Gorrie is now part of a four-company joint venture that will manage construction of SunTrust Park, the new home of the Atlanta Braves in Cobb County, Georgia.

There’s more. Birmingham’s BL Harbert International’s work includes many projects like its construction of the $562 million U.S. Embassy Compound in Islamabad, Pakistan. Robins & Morton, also of Birmingham, is building the $223 million General Medical Center way up there in Augusta, Maine.

The projects mentioned here don’t come close to scratching the surface of work done by Alabama construction companies. A study by the Alabama Associated General Contractors says Alabama’s commercial construction industry has a $9.6 billion economic impact in the state.

Since the close of World War II, Alabama has garnered more than its share of construction coups. State universities have cranked out engineering and building construction graduates, and the industry had great role models in pioneers such as Hugh Daniel, Miller Gorrie, John and Bill Harbert, Winton Blount, Houston Brice and others. And that list of names doesn’t scratch the surface, either.

As for engineering, Mobile-based Volkert Inc. was tops in Alabama in 2013, with contracts totaling $116 million for the firm. One of Volkert’s eye-opening jobs was a key role in the $603 million project to build twin spans to carry Interstate 10 over Lake Pontchartrain between Slidell, Louisiana and New Orleans.

Space and Rockets

United Launch Alliance, in Decatur — a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin —  builds the Delta and Atlas rockets that power most of the U.S.’s satellites into space.

For Huntsville, yes, it is rocket science. Take, for example, the U.S. Navy’s SM-3 missile that Raytheon makes there.

The SM-3 can be launched on land or sea and is designed to find and collide with hostile targets in space, “a capability that has been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet, ” Raytheon says on its website. “The massive collision of the kill vehicle hitting its target obliterates the threat completely. Explosives are not necessary. It hits the target with the power of a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 mph.”

Raytheon is only one of many high-tech companies and government agencies that trace their presence in Huntsville to Redstone Arsenal. Alabama can thank the late Sen. John Sparkman for the very existence of Redstone Arsenal and his political acumen for not only keeping it a viable entity but also for increasing its scope.

Built during World War II as a munitions depot, the facility was about to be closed when it was
chosen as the center for the U.S. Army’s rocket and guided missile program in the late 1940s. The 1950 arrival of Wernher von Braun and other scientists who had worked on Germany’s V-2 rockets ignited the thrust that carried Huntsville — and America — into the Space Age. 

With a major NASA facility and the Redstone defense work, rockets and space are easily Huntsville’s largest industry and a hotbed for engineering and scientific talent. Names such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne joined Raytheon as major employers, along with Redstone Arsenal. Huntsville’s economy also benefitted from the presence there of the Missile Defense Agency, the Missile and Space Intelligence Center and any number of other engineer- and research-based businesses.

A few miles from Huntsville, in Decatur, 864 employees at United Launch Alliance (ULA) manufacture virtually all rockets leaving the United States for space. A 50/50 joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA makes Atlas and Delta rockets that carry space payloads for weather, telecommunications and national security to deep space and interplanetary explorations missions. 

Austal USA launches the Littoral Combat Ship Independence on Mobile River in April 2008. 


Until recent years, Mobile’s most distinguished shipbuilding episode might have been construction of the ill-fated Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. The 40-foot boat attacked and sank a Union warship off the South Carolina coast during the Civil War, marking the first time a submarine ever sank an enemy surface ship.

The bad news for the Southerners was that the Hunley also sank during its attack, killing all eight of its crew. Maybe such an ending was to be expected. The Hunley had previously sunk on two training runs — losing 13 sailors in the process — but had been salvaged both times and readied for future action.

Mobile’s shipbuilding today is distinguished by the presence of Austal USA, which builds ships for the U.S. Navy that are a few light years more advanced than the hand-propelled Hunley. As an Austal USA operations executive once said, “We are a combination of Apple and Harley-Davidson. We build a state-of-the-art product that goes super-fast and looks wicked cool. We make the most advanced aluminum war ships in the entire world.” 

Austal USA builds the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). It’s designed for use in coastal waters and has an aluminum trimaran hull that’s lighter and provides significantly better fuel efficiency than a conventional steel mono hull. The LCS has an open computer architecture that can support multiple mission packages, including the latest in drone capabilities. Austal USA is also building Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV) for the Navy.

Also in Mobile, BAE Systems Ship Repair is an established name in blue-water ship construction, repairs and conversions for commercial fleets, cruise ships and the U.S. Defense Department. Mobile-based Signal International’s services include tug and barge construction and repairs on ships and oilrigs. 

Gone but not forgotten from Mobile’s shipbuilding scene is the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company, whose 70-year existence included construction and repair of warships during World War I and World War II and attracted tens of thousands to Mobile for work in the shipbuilding industry.

Today, all along the coast, shipbuilders large and small turn out craft for everything from shrimping to luxury yachting.

Sports Medicine

In the world of sports medicine, Birmingham orthopedic surgeon James Andrews is a superstar. The 72-year-old LSU graduate and SEC pole vault champion is renowned for perfecting the so-called “Tommy John” elbow surgeries on baseball pitchers, and he is also the go-to guy for numerous pro and collegiate athletes who sustain knee and shoulder injuries. He has saved or prolonged careers of a Who’s Who list of famous athletes — the likes of Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and professional golfer Jack Nicklaus. 

Asked on an HBO segment if Andrews is the best “or if it’s just a lot of good marketing, ” former Auburn and NBA basketball star Charles Barkley replied:   “I don’t know if he’s the best, but the best (athletes) come to him. I couldn’t have played in the NBA for 16 years without him.” Asked on the same show how he gets all the work he does, Andrews quipped, “I answer the phone.”

With his former partner, Dr. Larry Lemak, Andrews was a founder of the Birmingham-based American Sports Medicine Institute, a research and education center for sports medicine that has educated more than 250 orthopedic surgeons and family practitioners. Andrews has since founded his own practice in Birmingham, the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center, and has expanded into the Florida Panhandle. Lemak founded Birmingham-based Lemak Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center. Like Andrews, he is a highly regarded orthopedic surgeon and strong advocate for sports injury prevention.


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack convened a workshop at Alabama A&M University in May 2010 to consider revisions in federal regulation of the poultry and livestock industries.

Photo by Dennis Keim

Alabama is a place where the bird is the word.

Alabama produced 1.05 billion broilers in 2013, ranking it second behind Georgia, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. The state ranked fourth nationally in the total pounds of broilers produced (5.9 billion tons) and the value produced ($3.6 billion), behind Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas in those categories. A broiler, for those who don’t already know, is a chicken raised for eating as opposed to laying eggs. 

Broiler production in Alabama has skyrocketed in the past 50 years, from 50 million annually to more than a billion as Americans’ chicken consumption now stands at 87 pounds annually. The main reason for this increase was the advent of “vertical integration, ” a system in which a company — the integrator — supplies chicks and feed to farmers, or growers, who raise the birds on a contract basis. The company processes the broilers in a company-owned facility and pays the farmer for raising the birds to market age.

There are roughly 3, 500 broiler farms in Alabama today, mostly in Cullman, DeKalb, Marshall and Coffee counties. About 80, 000 Alabamians are employed directly in the poultry industry or industries that support it. Major companies in Alabama’s broiler industry include Koch Foods, Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride. Alabama exports some $424 million worth of poultry annually, primarily to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. 

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.

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