When Peach State officials last fall announced plans to build the Northeast Georgia Inland Port, Phil Sutton was among the most enthused business executives.
Sutton, who is vice president of administration for both Kubota Manufacturing of America Corp. and Kubota Industrial Equipment Corp., expects that, after the Georgia Ports Authority opens the regional intermodal facility in 2021, Kubota’s vast production facilities in Gainesville, Georgia, will reap numerous supply chain benefits.
The new inland terminal, to be the GPA’s second such installation in North Georgia, is slated to see a summer construction start along Norfolk Southern rail tracks in the same industrial campus that already is home to three Kubota manufacturing plant buildings employing 1,700 workers.
Sutton sat down this month with AJOT to discuss the anticipated time- and cost-saving benefits of the inland port – situated about 300 miles northwest of the Port of Savannah – as well as matters ranging from his U.S. Air Force and FBI National Academy experiences to the 42-acre farm he and his wife own in nearby Lula, Georgia.
Recognizing that Kubota Corp., which was founded in Japan in 1890, remains headquartered in Osaka, how has Georgia emerged as a significant part of Kubota’s manufacturing and supply chain logistics operations?
Kubota has been manufacturing in Georgia for over 30 years. As we have grown, supply chain operations have become an even more critical focus of our business in terms of cost and efficiency. Therefore, Georgia’s expanding intermodal network of transportation options – including trucks, rail and oceangoing vessels – is essential to our business.
We started manufacturing rough terrain utility vehicles in this, the newest of our plants here, in 2018. Right now, we’re producing between 30,000 and 35,000 units a year and have capacity to go to 50,000 a year. While the U.S. is the main market, about 15 to 20 percent of sales are exports, going from here to Europe, Canada, Australia and even Japan.
Everything in this building is already sold [to Kubota Sales Co.], meaning we have no inventory. Thus, we try to ship units the same day we build them.
We are a just-in-time business, so we live off of the supply chain. With our domestic suppliers, we try to have between one and three days of parts on hand, and, with our overseas suppliers, we try to have no more than two weeks on hand, so it’s really important we have a good solid supply chain.
Most of the Kubota engines we use, as well as our transmissions, are made in Japan, so we do import parts, mostly from Asia.
We previously were using West Coast ports and bringing [parts] in by truck and train, but we now try to use Savannah as much as possible. Obviously, there are logistics and lead time issues when you have to deal with multiple modes of transportation coming from the West Coast, so we like to use the East Coast.
What role do you see the Georgia Ports Authority’s Northeast Georgia Inland Port playing in Kubota’s supply chain after the facility is opened in 2021?
Our hope is that the Northeast Georgia Inland Port will help to reduce lead times and traffic delays in receiving parts and shipping finished goods through the ports. We also hope that the inland port will provide some relief to the driver shortages.
There are other technical logistics issues, like the availability of chassis, which, believe it or not, from the West Coast can be a big problem, including getting things off the ships onto chassis and to where they need to be.
Also, our cost of chassis increases with the longer we have to use them, so we can save some money if we can shorten the turnaround time on chassis from two or three days down to one day. And the same is true with containers.
Right now, trains from the West Coast or even Savannah would have to go into Austell [Norfolk Southern’s primary Atlanta area rail hub], which is on the other side of Atlanta, and truck drivers, with the new regulations on their hours, waste a lot of time in Atlanta and going around Atlanta. If we can avoid Atlanta, whether it’s trucks coming from Austell or Savannah, that’ll be another benefit to us.
How is advanced technology, including robotics, furnishing efficiencies at your North Georgia operations?
In the 30 years since Kubota established manufacturing operations here, we have grown to nearly 2,700 employees in Northeast Georgia [in Gainesville and neighboring Jackson County] at facilities encompassing 2.5 million square feet. We have also added new technologies, not to replace workers but to make them safer and more productive. We use robots and automated systems to assist employees in many tasks, from painting to welding to material handling.
How are you engaged with workforce training in Georgia, including through the board of the Technical College System of Georgia, to which you received gubernatorial appointment in 2015?
I am very appreciative of the opportunities to serve on the board of the Technical College System of Georgia, and, more recently, Gov. [Nathan] Deal asked me to also serve on the State Workforce Development Board. Both of these boards have given me an opportunity to help shape the future of Georgia’s workforce, which I believe is the most critical component of the state’s infrastructure and must be the cornerstone of economic development for the future.
It’s important to bring a manufacturing mindset into the boards and systems, to provide some real first-hand information about what manufacturers need and the direction they’re going. These boards can recruit businesses, but the first thing the businesses ask is if you have the workforce to support them.
I’m also involved with some local workforce development focused on engaging the high school students who aren’t going to college. We’ve been here 30 years and have never lain off a single fulltime employee, so this is job security and a good career.
How do you apply to your current position your experiences in the U.S. Air Force, as a graduate of the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, and degrees from Troy University and Wayland Baptist University, as well as 14 years with Kubota?
I retired in 1998 as a senior master sergeant after 20 years in the Air Force. I served in many assignments, including 10 years overseas. In the Air Force, I served in many roles in law enforcement operations, including criminal investigations, protective services, drug interdiction, Customs, antiterrorism, training and public affairs.
My undergraduate degree from Wayland Baptist University is in human services, and I have a masters of public administration from Troy University.
In 1996, I was one of only two members of the U.S. Air Force nominated to attend the FBI National Academy – the crown jewel of law enforcement training. When I was in the Air Force, I was primarily in criminal investigations and law enforcement, working on antiterrorism and supporting Secret Service and DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and U.S. Customs, so I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend the FBI National Academy for a 12-week course with about 250 police from around the world.
All of these prior experiences have helped prepare me to be successful with an international corporation and to understand the interfaces between the private and public sectors on a very large and complex scale.
We are in the Georgia Foreign-Trade Zone [Subzone No. 25P] and also participate here in C-TPAT [Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism]. Since we deal on an international basis, being able to work with Customs and the federal government to make sure we do our part is very natural to me. And, with 2,700 employees, we’re worried about their safety and security every day.
Who would you say has most influenced your life and why?
This one is easy. It is my awesome wife, Sue, who has supported me and my two sons – one an engineer and one a doctor – in all of my travels, relocation, education, family absences and business endeavors for the past 35 years.
My youngest son finished his residency as a doctor, and he is living with us right now and getting ready to start his own practice in Gainesville. And my oldest son is a design engineer, as is his wife, and they live in Oakwood [just south of Gainesville]. It is a great blessing, and we get to see our two granddaughters, who are almost 2 and 6, often. They love to visit Papaw’s farm.
Papaw is how I refer to my grandfather, who had a farm in Central Indiana, I grew up on a farm in Amish country in Northern Indiana, and now I have a small farm in Lula, where my wife and I enjoy hobby farming activities.
We moved from South Hall County in Buford to the 42 acres in Lula last year. We have some chickens and some ducks and have planted some fruit trees and nut trees and a big old garden.
This my retirement plan, to have something that we can just enjoy the scenery and wildlife and being in the country in the North Georgia mountains and still be close to Gainesville.
You’re not looking to retire anytime soon, are you?
No. No. No.