Chattanooga companies maximize market share through strong international business ties

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For Chattanooga-based insurer Unum, having operations overseas permits the business to be part of a global brand as well as contributing to the company's bottom line.

"We see it as a core part of our franchise," says Rick McKenney, Unum's chief executive officer. "We've had a couple of really strong growth years."

The Chattanooga area has a variety of companies tapping into the international marketplace. Business ties increasingly connect Chattanooga enterprises to the world, according to officials.

Steam Logistics, the third-party logistics company founded in 2012, was focused on international freight brokerage though it has since surged into the domestic side as well.

Jason Provonsha, chief executive of Steam Logistics, says its international segment is about 10% of its overall revenue now. Last year, he says, the international side was up some 10% in volume, but was hindered by a recession in the business.

"In years past, it was a much larger percentage," Provonsha says, noting the company has grown its domestic footprint. He says Steam is projecting about a 25% growth rate in the international group in 2024.

"We reorganized our international team last year, hired some veteran talent, and feel very bullish about the future prospects of that division," the Steam CEO says. "Most (third-party logistics companies) who have as large of a domestic footprint as Steam do little to no international freight, so we see that segment as a particularly strong differentiator for Steam among our competitors."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Unum Chief Executive Officer Rick McKenney talks about the Chattanooga-based company from the roof at its headquarters on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

Chattanooga's Volkswagen production plant, which assembles the Atlas, Atlas Cross Sport and ID.4 SUVs and employs 5,500 people, distributes the vehicles not just nationally but internationally as well, according to the German automaker.

For example, the seven-seat Atlas goes to neighboring nations Canada and Mexico, says Mark Gillies, Volkswagen Group of America's director of public relations and reputation.

Central America, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama also see the Atlas, he says. In South America, the Atlas ships to countries including Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Columbia, and Paraguay.

"I think the markets decided they wanted these vehicles and Chattanooga is best placed to supply them, since Atlas and Cross Sport are assembled here," he says.

The Atlas also goes to the island locations of Aruba, Curacao, Saint Martin and Dominican Republic, Gillies says. Even further away, Vietnam imports the Atlas; and South Korea will do so this summer. In the Middle East, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi Dubai are Atlas recipients.

Meanwhile, he adds, the Atlas Cross Sport is shipped to Canada and Mexico, while the ID.4 also goes to Canada.

Unum, which offers disability and other voluntary benefits at the workplace, does business in the United Kingdom and Poland, and it has an operations center in Ireland, McKenney says.

Unum has been in the UK for almost 35 years and is on "a really good growth path," he says.

The business in Poland was acquired by Unum in 2018, and McKenney says he's excited to see that enterprise grow.

The operations center in Ireland was started in 2010 where employees carry out technology and other work for Unum, he says.

Altogether, Unum's international operations employ about 2,000 of the about 11,000 people who work for the insurer.

In terms of the future, McKenney says the company likely will look at expanding its international operations.

"We'll look around the globe," he says. "It has to be something we bring serving employees around the workplace."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Employees work at their desks at the Steam Logistics headquarters on Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Provonsha says the headwinds in the international space in 2023 were substantial as the market corrected itself as a response of the overheated supply chain that occurred during the pandemic.

"This year, we are starting to see some tailwinds," he says.

Provonsha says the recent disruptions related to the Houthi rebels attacking container ships, requiring those vessels to avoid the Suez Canal, has increased ocean rates and allowed Steam to provide creative solutions to its customers, which has been "a nice value driver" for the company.

"Additionally, the drought in Panama has created some disruptions related to the Panama Canal, and likewise, we have been able to drive a lot of value to customers as we help them navigate this issue," he says.


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