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Sales Recruiting in Atlanta: How Growth is Impacting Employers

Since 2013, Atlanta has become something of an economic unicorn. The city and its surrounding areas have enjoyed strong job growth, especially in well-paying professional and business services jobs. Yet, the region continues to boast a relatively low cost of living, especially when it comes to housing. At the same time, both state and local government are working overtime to lure companies to the region and to develop the infrastructure necessary to nurture the area’s start-up companies. This is good news for employers looking to expand their sales forces in the Atlanta area.  

With new graduates from the region’s cluster of prestigious colleges and universities and a steady flow of well educated migrants from other U.S. cities coming into the region looking for a better quality of life, employers are likely to find a deep and intriguing talent pool in Atlanta.

This article discusses how sales recruiting in Atlanta is evolving. Specifically, it illustrates how the city’s growth, budding start-up community, and educational institutions are affecting the sales talent pipeline, sales wage levels, and employer hiring requirements.

The Atlanta Landscape – An Overview

Atlanta and its surrounding region make up the 11th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. The region is second only to Miami-Dade in Florida as the largest in the southeast. Forbes ranks Atlanta #5 on its annual Best Places for Business and Careers and the city is also included in the top ten “cities of the future” list compiled by FDI Intelligence, a division of the Financial Times.

As headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta has always played a key role in the medicine, pharmaceuticals and life sciences industries, a role backed up by an impressive array of research universities that include Emory University, Georgia Tech University, and Georgia State University.

However, while Atlanta continues to be a leader in these health-related industries, its economic growth is coming from a diverse array of areas. Blue chip companies are moving their headquarters to take advantage of Atlanta’s skilled workforce and low cost of living, joining Fortune 100 companies like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, United Parcel Service, AT&T Mobility and Newell Rubbermaid.

Established companies are also moving their headquarters to Atlanta. Last year, Mercedes-Benz USA moved its headquarters to a temporary office in Atlanta while awaiting its new building to be completed next year while NCR Corporation broke ground on its new headquarters in Midtown Atlanta. In order to be in close proximity to other technology companies, Sage Software expanded its North American headquarters with a new facility in downtown.

The city’s low cost of living is often cited as a reason for companies relocating or expanding in Atlanta, but incentives provided by state and local government are also likely to weigh in that decision. For example, the state of Georgia provides a tax credit of $2,500 to $5,000 per job created.

“Our new Atlantic Station location puts us in the in the center of the emerging Midtown Atlanta technology corridor and positions our newly established North American headquarters to attract top talent in the years to come,” – Marc Scheipe, Sage North America’s CFO.

Start-ups have targeted downtown to take advantage of the entrepreneurial support network and incubators, like TechSquare Labs with its 25,000 square feet of co-working and innovation space, and Georgia Tech University and other nearby universities. And other large and mid-size companies, like Equifax and Georgia-Pacific, are growing along with the city itself in a wide range of industries, including financial services technology, healthcare, life sciences, cyber security and app development. The chart below shows regional employment by industry. Growth in professional and business services, one of the largest industries in the region, continues to be strong.

Employment in the Atlanta Region as of February 2016

Industry Number employed (thousands)
Trade, Transportation, and Utilities 924.1
Professional & Business Services 662.8
Government 684.0
Education & Health Services 543.8
Leisure & Hospitality 462.1
Manufacturing 385.1
Financial Activities 238.5
Construction 173.4
Other Services 157.1
Information 102.4
Mining and Logging 8.8

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Atlanta’s position as a regional economic hub is backed up by its geographical location. The city sits at the convergence of several major interstate highway arteries and its airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is the busiest airport in the U.S. in terms of passenger traffic.

Outside of work, there is plenty to do in the city, including music, theater and professional sports. The city is also awash in history and the site of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Over the past several years, Atlanta has become a Hollywood of the eastern seaboard with $6 billion worth of film production going on in the city and its surrounding areas throughout the year.

Sales Opportunities in Atlanta

Atlanta is growing. Between November 2014 and November 2015, the metropolitan area added 25,100 jobs. In particular, growth in professional and business services jobs (5.3%) far outpaced the 3.2% experienced in the U.S. as a whole. This growth is coming from companies large and small who are either choosing Atlanta as their corporate hub or expanding into the city.

Given this economic growth, sales professionals will not lack opportunities. With sales positions a perennial entry on lists of the hardest jobs to fill, companies fishing in sales talent pools are looking for the best stocked ponds. Atlanta fits the bill.

The local area has an ongoing flow of new talent coming out of universities like Georgia Tech, Emory University and Georgia State University, among others. Sales professionals who want to increase their chances for success also have access to sales-specific education and talent development opportunities at these schools, making them more educated in sales than any generation before. Georgia State University, Morehouse College, and Kennesaw State University are all among the top 50 universities for professional sales education. Further afield, the University of Georgia, 90 minutes away, also ranks on the list.

At the same time, new migrants to the area are driving population growth, attracted by expanding job opportunities and the low cost of living. There are still challenges, however. For instance, like the rest of the southern U.S., and indeed the country as a whole, it still takes time to fill positions. In this case, companies in the region should expect an average of 26.9 days to fill a job vacancy, according to data from DHI Hiring Indicators. For senior sales positions in particular, Atlanta employers are reporting search times to range between 100-125 days.

Other industry moves also have greater impact on Atlanta than just opening a new office or plant. Baxalta (formerly part of Baxter International) is scheduled to open a new plant in Covington, GA this year. This is significant for the city because “[i]t breaks the stranglehold that North Carolina has on pharmaceutical manufacturing,” according to Bill Johnston, CEO of Tucker, GA based InVasc Therapeutics Inc. and a 20-year Baxter veteran. He noted that Baxter chose the Atlanta site for its proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Atlanta could become a preferred hub for pharmaceutical or vaccine manufacturing that requires air distribution,” he said, noting that Dendreon Corporation also chose Atlanta for a cancer treatment manufacturing plant for the same reason. As Atlanta becomes more of a hub for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies, career opportunities in sales are likely to grow in tandem. In fact, requests for Atlanta based senior sales reps and regional managers have increased by 24% since 2014.

As Atlanta continues to attract sales talent by diversifying and expanding industries in the area, ideal candidate requirements in the city are evolving as well. Typically, employers are evaluating candidates against these 4 primary criteria:

  • Achieved quota for past 5+ years
  • Experience in account and territory planning (Atlanta area and Southeastern statelines preferred)
  • Extensive CRM knowledge
  • Successful experience working in an entrepreneurial environment

For organizations looking to attract and recruit top salespeople with the ability to exceed targets in the Atlanta area, download our free winning job description templates for VP of Sales, Sales Manager, Account Executive, and Sales Engineer positions.

The Start-Up Scene

DataFox named Atlanta one of the best cities to form a start-up outside of Silicon Valley and New York. “Atlanta’s start-up scene owes a great deal of its success to Mayor Kasim Reed,” according to the report. To create an environment for start-ups to thrive, Reed recruited economic development veterans to build out the Invest Atlanta staff and deepened ties to nearby Georgia Tech University, among other initiatives. 

Other investors are taking advantage of the opportunities in Atlanta. The recently formed Leaders Fund plans to invest the $100 million it has raised in enterprise SaaS firms in both Atlanta and Toronto. In Atlanta, the fund will be looking for opportunities to invest in “underserved” companies from a venture capital perspective.

In terms of overall venture capital, Atlanta ranks 13th in the ongoing MoneyTree Report compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association. In 2015, the Atlanta area attracted more than $836 million for 70 deals allocated to 58 companies. Data from the fourth quarter 2015 (below) shows a breakdown by industry, all of which rely heavily on their sales forces to drive growth.

Bijon Khosravi, an angel investor in Atlanta, expects the city to continue growing as an entrepreneurial hotspot, especially for Silicon Valley companies looking to expand or relocate. “Leaving Silicon Valley means leaving the ego behind too,” he said. “In Atlanta, an entrepreneur doesn’t have to charter a luxury bus to cart workers from San Francisco to Palo Alto or Mountain View. There is no need for extensive perks or costly amenities. Salaries are much more affordable, and the cost of living is lower in Atlanta. For example, the median price of a home in San Jose is $773K. The median price for a home in Atlanta is $138K. That’s big savings when it comes to a business plan.”

Moreover, Peak Sales Recruiting has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of requests from start-up companies seeking to recruit top performing sales executives in the Atlanta area. Since 2012, the demand from high-growth start-ups looking to hire sales leaders in the area has increased by 16%.

High Growth with a Low Cost of Living

There are plenty of reasons why future growth in Atlanta and its surrounding areas shows no sign of tapering off. “A high concentration of college-educated workers, business partners, high-tech companies and research universities will continue to attract high-technology companies in life sciences, research and development, IT, professional and business services, and advanced manufacturing,” predicts Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

Overall, Atlanta’s job growth between November 2014 and November 2015 was more than 1.5 times greater than job growth for the U.S. as a whole. As a result of this strong job growth, the Atlanta area has more than recovered from the recession. “Total payroll employment is now more than four percent above its pre-recession peak,” according to an economic forecast from PNC Bank. “High-tech professional services have been the mainstay of Atlanta’s economic rebound. A number of planned expansions and relocations to Atlanta by large firms attest to the strength of Atlanta’s tech and corporate cluster.”

More importantly for the future, growth from the types of jobs Atlanta is attracting is in many ways self perpetuating and sales job growth is a key beneficiary of the city’s current growth trajectory. For example, if a software firm creates 100 new jobs, assuming industry-average earnings of $140,304, the economic impact of those jobs would create an additional 503 jobs in other industries, including sales positions, averaging $61,488 in earnings, according to an analysis conducted by CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists International. This includes 78 jobs in sales and related fields, 51 management jobs, and 55 jobs in business and financial operations.

In addition to job growth, Atlanta is attractive to both companies and key sales talent because of its the relatively low cost of living compared to other major metropolitan areas. This is particularly important for start-ups and companies of any size that want to attract great sales talent from other areas.

DataFox’s report on the Atlanta entrepreneurial environment specifically focuses on the low cost of living the city offers. “Atlanta makes our list primarily because its early-stage companies show strong growth, and because it’s more affordable than many other startup centers. With a focus on scaling and low cost of living, Atlanta is the perfect place to grow a company from 1 employee to 100.”

Housing costs, in particular, are low enough to make home ownership feasible for a large swathe of the working population, something that cannot be said for many other major cities. PNC Bank noted in its analysis that a median-priced home priced costs 1.4 times the area’s median income, compared to 1.7 times the median income nationally. The chart below shows how affordable housing is in real terms compared to other cities.

The one shadow on the Atlanta growth curve is traffic—the natural consequence to rapid growth in a major city center. Like Austin, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Boston and many other urban hubs, Atlanta’s traffic jams have become a well-known nuisance in the logistics of transportation. Companies are well aware of the situation and many are turning to flex-time and some telecommuting options to help employees avoid long commutes. Mercedes-Benz USA, which recently moved from Montvale, N.J. to Atlanta, quickly recognized traffic problems and is looking at flexible work arrangements to deal with the issue. “The new generation of employees expect such flexibility in lifestyle, too,” said Stephen Cannon, the company’s now-retired CEO.

Despite the traffic difficulties, one benefit of Atlanta’s location is that the road warriors of sales have ready access to one of the most important airline hubs in the country. In fact, Atlanta’s easy access to direct air travel is one of the reasons why so many companies choose the area for their operations. Not only does Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport serve as an important distribution hub, but the airport also helps get people in and out of the city more easily for sales meetings, customer visits and other key elements of the sales process. This hub is a key reason why Mercedes-Benz is moving its dealer leadership training to Atlanta. Such a strategic move is not surprising when you consider that Mercedes-Benz USA’s new CEO Dietmar Exler was formerly the company’s vice president of sales, a position now held by Adam Chamberlain.

The Impact on Sales Pay

Despite such consistent growth, sales pay levels in Atlanta remain in line with national averages. Peak Sales Recruiting data shows that Atlanta salary averages for VP of Sales, Account Executive, and Sales Manager are all very close to U.S. averages. While these averages remain on track with national figures, the low cost of living in Atlanta makes these salaries more attractive.

While overall annual wages in Atlanta are close to national averages, wages for specific positions greatly vary. For example, average annual wages for advertising and promotions managers, at $93,370, are much lower than the national average of $114,700, while advertising sales agents earn much more ($78,510) than the national average for those positions ($60,910).

Peak Sales data indicates that for a VP of Sales in Atlanta, the average salary is typically lower in most industries (IT and telecommunications, manufacturing, and software) in comparison to major cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. For more information on average sales salaries for Atlanta vs. other major cities by industry, please see the VP of Sales Salaries by Industry article.

Looking Ahead

Atlanta has a lot to offer and a bright future. While the city still has some work to do as it builds its entrepreneurial infrastructure before it can catch up to places like Silicon Valley and Austin, city officials, higher education and the local business community have carefully laid the groundwork for future growth. Large and mid-size companies have already begun to capitalize on Atlanta’s low cost of living and strong talent base. People moving into Atlanta from more expensive parts of the country have recognized the advantages of Atlanta as they move into the region in search of affordable housing with an enhanced quality of life. Sales professionals will indefinitely seek out Atlanta as a location to discover opportunities for career growth, while the companies that hire those professionals are likely to see a deep talent pool eager to advance their careers.


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