Q&A: Atlanta’s Mayor on the Secrets to His City’s Success Attracting, Retaining and Growing Brands

Kasim Reed says regional cooperation and talent are key

Maura Friedman

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is in his last year in office, wrapping up two terms that saw the city grow in both population and economic opportunity.

A Democrat credited with fixing the city’s pension system, balancing the budget and growing Atlanta’s cash reserves to $175 million dollars, Reed has also been an active player in regional efforts to lure major corporations—such as Porsche North America, which opened a $100 million Porsche Experience Center and corporate headquarters in Atlanta in 2015.

What have been the secrets to his administration’s success? As part of Adweek’s City Spotlight: Atlanta series, we sat down with Reed to discuss the rich culture, entrepreneurial growth and vibrant image that have defined the city under his leadership:

Adweek: Several brands have relocated to Atlanta or expanded into the city in recent years. What role did you and the city play in getting them here?
Mayor Kasim Reed: Well it really starts with a focus on excellent customer service and strong fundamentals. The way you help the technology industry and other industries is to make sure that the city is fundamentally a place where people believe that their investments will thrive.

We have an unprecedented level of cooperation between myself and (Republican) Gov. Nathan Deal, so that when a business is trying to make a decision, they really are dealing with the city and the state in a seamless fashion. When Governor Deal and I make a commitment, you can certainly take it to your shareholders with a high level of confidence.

Over the past 42 months we’ve had 17 corporate or regional headquarters choose to live inside of the city of Atlanta. I think the most powerful commitment of that kind has easily been from NCR, which is building a $350 million dollar campus. What we have tried to do is to make sure that the city creates a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs and that we’re not an impediment.

Frequently when we’re competing for headquarters, it typically gets down to Atlanta and a Dallas, for example, but that means that we’re occupying our territory in terms of the Southeast. That’s really what we consider our sweet spot. And so what I tell my team is, I want to create the dominant city and the dominant economy from the eastern border of Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, North to Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, and we really don’t count Miami, because it’s down a peninsula.

How big a factor is Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in attracting businesses and their headquarters to Atlanta?

I mean, in terms of attracting business to Atlanta, first is Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, second is Hartsfield- Jackson Airport and third is Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Last year, we renewed Delta Airlines’ headquarter relationship with the city of Atlanta for 20 years, so that will ensure that Hartsfield-Jackson will remain the dominant airport in the world.

If you’re in the city of Atlanta and you have a regional or global headquarters, you have the ability to check on operations within the U.S. and get back home. So no matter what executive you are, there is a growing desire for everyone to get back home as quickly as possible to be with our families.

We think that if you want to be in the South, that it’s going to be us. The city of Atlanta sits in a regional GDP in excess of $305 billion dollars. We sit in the ninth largest metro in the United States and our region’s GDP is larger than 30 states in the union. So all of those things are what we consider our core strength.

How would you describe Atlanta’s talent pool and its role in attracting corporations?
I think that Atlanta has the most talented, diverse and dynamic workforce in the Southeast. If you’re in the technology sector and you need highly trained engineers, Georgia Tech produces an engineer as highly qualified as anywhere else in the world.

We have a terrific complement of universities, such as Emory, Georgia State and the Atlanta University Center. We’re producing an unusually high number of black college graduates as well.

Emory

Our diversity plays an essential role, because millennials care more about fairness and equity and what your roots are. Atlanta literally would not be what it is, but for the fact that we were the cradle of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s. We have a very long and rich tradition not of getting everything right, but at working at issues between our communities very hard.

Atlanta’s financial tech boom has earned it the nickname “Transaction Alley.” What has that success meant for the city?
It means if you use your credit card, there is a 70 percent chance that transaction is processed through the Atlanta metropolitan region. It just suggests that there are going to be more and more dynamic businesses that are choosing to make their roots here, because we’ve got high talent and we have a terrific pool of potential clients. InComm has expanded the number of employees in the city. Worldpay moved 1,200 jobs to Atlantic Station, and obviously they are a leading technology firm as well as Sage. Cielo, which is a Brazilian technology firm also chose Atlanta for their North American headquarters.

Despite Atlanta’s successes, Donald Trump described U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s district as “falling apart” on Twitter in January. You came to John Lewis’s defense. Were you disheartened to hear that the President described much of Atlanta this way and do you hope to change his mind?

I don’t hope to change President Trump’s mind. I don’t believe, candidly, that he knows his own mind, because he said just the opposite when he was contemplating making a $300 million dollar investment in a tower here. So you have conflicting quotes. (In 2006, Trump called Atlanta a “great city” that he has loved for years.)

"I don't hope to change President Trump's mind. I don't believe, candidly, that he knows his own mind"
-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

You have quotes where before he was president, [he said] Atlanta was absolutely terrific, and there are a number of quotes before crime was 27 percent lower. That was before we had the third largest concentration of Fortune 500 businesses, that was before we had more than five Presidential Medal of Freedom winners from the city of Atlanta, so the list goes on and on. And I just do like most people, which is to not give very much credence to Twitter comments from the President.

The Atlanta Falcons hadn’t been in the Super Bowl since 1998. What did this year’s appearance do for Atlanta—other than leave the fans feeling bad after the heartbreaking loss?
I think that winning sports teams, and certainly the Atlanta Falcons, unify the city. I mean, during the run up to the Super Bowl, I don’t ever recall feeling like the city felt. And I think that we have the best owner in the NFL with Arthur Blank and everything that he does for the city of Atlanta. It absolutely put the city on the global stage on one of the most televised nights in America. We were absolutely proud of the NFC Champions Atlanta Falcons and look forward to their return to the Super Bowl next year.