By Lisa Monti
The annual Southern Automotive Conference in Biloxi began Thursday sessions with an upbeat economic presentation and wound down with the Mississippi blues. In between, participants heard about workforce, something and something.
Peter Ricchiuti, founder and director of the Burkenroad Reports at Tulane University, opened the two day meeting at Beau Rivage by telling his audience, “Don’t take any of this too seriously.” Ricchiuti has been called a cross between Warren Buffett and Robin Williams.
“Wall Street is very optimistic about your industry,” he told auto manufacturers, suppliers and economic developers. Industry stocks have done better than the market and he said, “That is a positive sign for the outlook for your industry.”
With more aging cars on the road, auto parts retailers’ stock is also outperforming the market.
Ricchiuti said the country is not entering another recession, despite reports skewed by some broadcasters. “That’s not what I see,” he said. “I’m very optimistic about the U.S. economy.”
The economy has been growing for 17 quarters in a row, he said. Other positive signs include the rise of corporate profits and stock prices, the paydown of household debt and the nation’s energy independence.
Young entrepreneurs like those he teaches at Tulane University also give Ricchiuti a good feeling about the future. “I’m very optimistic,” he said. “This is a great group of young people.”
Ricchiuti said investors are starting to get their confidence back and that he doesn’t see a double dip recession threatening to knock down the economy. He also predicted mergers and acquisitions ramping up. “You’re going to see a lot of companies gobbling each other up,” he said.
He said the country has the world’s largest and most productive economy, the finest higher education system in the world and a culture of technology and innovation that is second to none.
“I’m optimistic for the auto industry and the country,” he said.
One big concern for the auto industry addressed at a session Thursday is workforce development. Changing the outdated perception of manufacturing to reflect its clean, high tech nature is a challenge for automakers and other industrial employers. Parents have been steering their children away from manufacturing jobs and toward medicine, the law, banking and other careers. Manufacturers need “a new workforce strategy” to get more students into manufacturing careers, said Melanie Stover, program manager of The Manufacturing Institute
At a session on corporate responsibility, Toyota’s Barbara McDaniel, manager of external affairs/government relations for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America and president of the Mississippi Automotive Manufacturers Association, said the automaker emphasizes community involvement, philanthropy, sharing its expertise and diversity as part of its corporate culture.
Recent examples of Toyota’s volunteerism are the National Public Lands Day event in Mississippi and tornado cleanup in Alabama. The Mississippi event drew 900 Toyota employees and their family members, she said.
Luncheon speakers Thursday were Gov. Phil Bryant, Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Tom Fanning and TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson. Bryant helped present the MAMA Award of Excellence to the Mississippi Manufacturers Association.
The evening’s reception featured entertainment by Mississippi’s Homemade Jamz Blues Band.Auto conference day one.