The Cat Empire rules Geelong with a touch of Siamese

The Geelong Cats have won the AFL flag, and a flag of automotive manufacturing hope may have been brought to the region by a Siamese.

It’s now the Year of the Cat in Geelong after the town’s all conquering Aussie Rules team won the premiership in emphatic style, in defeating Port Adelaide by a record 119 points and breaking a 44-year drought. And of course, Geelong has been in ecstasy as the club and the players have celebrating long and hard since winning the flag on the hallowed turf of the MCG on that last Saturday in September.


But there have been some more reasons to celebrate in Geelong off the field as well. Geelong and the neighbouring surf coast area is booming after some lean years economically, following the shakedown of local manufacturing and the financial collapse of the local building society Pyramid.


The Geelong economy is doing well, its manufacturing sector is diverse and the surrounding areas like Barwon Heads, Torquay and Lorne are benefiting from Melbourne expatriates looking for a “sea change” on the coast (in fact the original award winning ABC drama Sea Change starring Sigrid Thornton, John Howard, William McInnes and David Wenham, was actually filmed on location in Barwon Heads).


Geelong is also benefiting from internationalisation. In fact, soon after the Cats won the flag, the town received a visit from the Thailand Board of Investment (BOI). The BOI is interested in linking in with Geelong to supply its ever expanding automotive assembly industry on the eastern seaboard, which is about two hours drive out of Bangkok.


In fact, earlier thus year when I visited the region on a visit to Thailand (also known as the Land of Smiles), I noticed a strong Australian presence there. The region, which has been dubbed “the Detroit of the east” was the epitome of modern global manufacturing. The factories there all had state-of-the-art technology, the workers were highly skilled, production techniques were sophisticated, and over 60% of production was earmarked for export.


Australia is one of the leading investors in Thailand and many Australians have set up major operations on the eastern seaboard. According to Sean Riley, Australia’s senior trade commissioner for Thailand and the greater Mekong region: “Over 2500 Australian companies directly export to Thailand, but this underestimates the increasing numbers that are setting up operations in Thailand to support their businesses back in Australia,” he explains.


The eastern seaboard of Thailand is a hub for the automotive industry and many automotive component makers have a foot in both camps – Australian and Thai – to take advantage of the booming market in the Mekong Delta.


For example, Trimotive which produces automotive components for one tonne pick-up trucks in Thailand sees an off-shore presence as vital for his company’s prosperity back home in Australia. As Robert Saunders, the managing director of Trimotive put it: “Every Australian manufacturer should think globally in order to survive locally.”


Many of the Australian companies have been attracted to the areas because of the BOI’s program. “The combination of the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) Investment incentives from BOI, and Thailand’s strategic location in the Mekong Delta that is driving this investment – particularly from Australia” says Riley. Saunders at Trimotive agrees: “The investment incentives in this country are magnificent,” he said.


So while the footy club has made Geelong the city of smiles in “The Year of the Cat”, the injection of some Thai investment could help the automotive industry get the cream and we could well see The Cat Empire having a touch of Siamese in years to come.




*Tim Harcourt is chief economist at Austrade and author of Beyond Our Shores.

Thanks to Sean Riley, Jodie McAlister and Sineenart of Austrade Bangkok and their comments and assistance with this article.


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