Kia's West Point, Georgia Manufacturing Facility Offers Opportunity and Hope to Families

In 2007, the town of West Point, Georgia was quiet. You might have even seen a tumbleweed rolling through, says Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG) Public Relations Manager Patrick Sands, a native of the area. The run of success and prosperity that West Point-Pepperell, Inc. (WPP) had brought to West Point had come to an end after a bitter buyout, erasing decades of jobs and support for the area.

When an industry leaves a city, a hole remains. Unemployment was hovering around 13% in 2008, and hope was scarce. Kimberly Sears was in retail sales, working a lot of hours. Gaynell Hurst was a photographer at nearby Fort Benning for 20 years. When Kia came to town to build their first North America-based manufacturing plant, Gaynell and Kimberly found their way to an application.

“There was no hope here after the textile mills shut down,” says Kimberly. “Kia brought hope, and I took a chance on them.”

Now, Kimberly is a team leader, working with the Sorento, the Optima, and the new Telluride. Gaynell is a group leader, starting in the seat belt section of the assembly line. It wasn’t always easy and she didn’t always love it, but she had a son in school and she stuck it out. When she was ready to move up the ranks, Kia was willing to work with her.

“In the Kia commercial [that aired after the big NFL finale in January], that little boy is speaking for our town,” Gaynell says. “If you apply yourself here, you can move up. Now I can build a car from the ground up, which opens a lot of opportunities.”

There was some negativity about the ad, but both Gaynell and Kimberly, as well as Patrick, say it represents the reality of what has taken place in their hometown.

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West Point is growing since the plant officially started work in 2008. New homes are being built. New businesses are thriving. And Kia is the largest employer in Troup County, with thousands employed at Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia and its suppliers.

“Transportation is critical to our society,” Patrick tells us. “When you see how many people are employed here and how many lives are affected, it’s impactful.”

They’re putting money into the community, as well, donating $2.3M to local schools and working closely with THINC (Troup County School System), THINC College and Career Academy, and colleges in the area, like West Georgia Technical College.

The plant offer tours to middle school kids, and they’re working toward negating misperceptions about what it’s like to work on a factory floor. And in fact, the floor at KMMG is spotless. There is a constant stream of activity to both build the cars and keep the plant clean. It’s probably cleaner than the average person’s kitchen floor, truthfully, which is remarkable considering more than 300,000 vehicles are being built right here every year.

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“Even with our own employees’ kids in school, we can help them understand the different kinds of jobs that could be available to them,” says Chief Administrative Officer Stuart Countess.

Stuart, who joined Kia from Mercedes-Benz after a 14-year career with the luxury brand, embraced the opportunity to start a new plant with this position. In the past, Kia was perceived much in the way that Toyota and Honda were perceived in the early 80s: a cheap foreign-made car. Now, however, the brand is seeing its star rise in the last several years, especially with the all-star launch of the Stinger two years ago, and now the Telluride.

“It’s a very different management style at Kia,” Stuart says. “We’re not afraid to change, and we can change quickly.”

This agility allows KMMG to flex production as necessary to meet demand. As Kia’s market share grows, the ability to pivot is key. Kia’s hopes are high for the new 8-passenger Telluride, the brand’s first three-row SUV. In West Point, the level of interest is high, and both Gaynell and Kimberly say their neighbors and friends are both curious and excited about it. Press response has been very positive, so far. A Telluride sits in the lobby of KMMG, a beacon of hope toward the future of this brand, the area, and this plant.

Kia lent us one of their spectacular K900 sedans (built in Korea, with the also-stellar Stinger) for this trip. Think the sedan is dead? With the K900, there is no question the sedan is alive and well.

Kristin Shaw