The Southern auto industry is booming, fed by massive capital investments from transplant auto makers – and parts suppliers that support them – in new manufacturing facilities.

For the eighth year in a row, the Global Automotive Conference, sponsored in part by Ward’s, will bring together executives, middle managers, service providers, government representatives and educators eager to discuss an industry that is experiencing an unprecedented change.

The theme for this year’s conference, to be held April 22 to 25 at the Seelbach Hilton in Louisville, KY, is “Let’s Get Real,” with regard to globalization of the auto industry.

“Globalization is here and will remain, but it’s not something we have to be so fearful about,” says Bill Parsons, GAC chairman and co-founder. “There are a lot of things we can do to restructure our organizations to take advantage of globalization.

“We want the message to come across that manufacturing is still a very viable portion of the business here in North America.”

Monday’s keynote luncheon speaker is Bob Lutz, General Motors Corp. vice chairman-global product development.

Other speakers throughout the week include Tim Leuliette, chairman, president and CEO of Metaldyne Corp.; Joseph Hinrichs, vice president-North American Mfg. for Ford Motor Co.; and Phil Martens, president-Light Vehicle Systems at ArvinMeritor Inc.

At 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, a panel discussion will explore the pros and cons of global supply chain management, as well as techniques and strategies that parts makers are incorporating in their marketing and manufacturing operations.

Panelists include Rebecca Vest, general manager-Vehicle Parts and Materials Purchasing for Toyota Motor Engineering and Mfg. North America; Laurie Harbour-Felax, president of Harbour-Felax Group; Jim Seta, director-North American Sales for SKF Automotive Division; and John Kay, North American president for SupplyOn, an international e-marketplace for auto suppliers.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, another panel discussion will concentrate on labor market opportunities and challenges, particularly with regard to health care and retaining and recruiting talent.

Panelists include Kimberly Kovac, executive vice president-human resources at Metaldyne Corp.; and David Lalain, business unit director for the Automotive Industry Action Group.

At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, a panel session will explore ways to win contracts with the “New Domestic” transplant auto makers, many of them located near Louisville and further south.

Speakers include Sherry Welsh, senior vice president-sales and marketing for Robert Bosch Corp.; and Christine Filipowicz, senior regional director for Visteon Corp.’s Asian OEM Customer Business Group.

With its significant manufacturing presence in Louisville, Ford also will offer Monday morning tours of its Kentucky Truck Plant (Super Duty pickups) and the Louisville Assembly Plant (Explorer/Mountaineer).

Parsons says the conference format is comparable to the Management Briefing Seminars, held in early August each year in Traverse City, MI.

But the GAC is smaller than the Traverse City confab, which can attract a crowd of more than 1,200. Last year’s GAC, held in Lexington, KY, drew 372 people.

For some local flavor, a Sunday night reception will feature bourbon tasting with Bill Samuels Jr., president and CEO of Maker’s Mark Distillery. Kentucky produces 80% of the world’s bourbon. A Monday night reception will be held at the Louisville Slugger Museum.

Many GAC attendees will come from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, as well as China, Japan, Mexico and Russia, Parsons says.

For more information, visit the conference website at GAC.KY.net.