Mercedes making its mark after Atlanta move

More than a dozen small Mercedes-Benz SUVs sat in the drizzle in front of a tony Buckhead hotel, ready for some of the nation’s top automotive journalists to put them through their paces along busy freeways and twisty mountain two-lanes.

The new GLC 300 won’t go on sale for a couple more months, but many upcoming reviews of the model will be borne of test drives from Atlanta’s poshest neighborhood to a winery in the North Georgia mountains. The setting might even get a mention or two in the write-ups.

Metro Atlanta’s newest corporate citizen, which last winter moved its U.S. headquarters to the area from New Jersey, is wasting little time in establishing residency.

The company’s name and three-pointed star logo are already slated to adorn the new Atlanta Falcons stadium downtown, as well as a new office complex planned in north Fulton County.

Last week, the German luxury automaker brought a first to Atlanta: the formal U.S. unveiling of a model Mercedes hopes will become its top selling SUV in America.

The product launch in Atlanta – something the automaker plans to do more of — also became a way to showcase the metro area as Mercedes-Benz’s new U.S. hub.

Mercedes held receptions at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Buckhead and meals at some of the city’s best-known restaurants. Writers took the compact SUVs on drives through Georgia’s scenic mountains at the height of fall, with a stop at the new Falcons stadium sales center where executives showed off the new dome that’ll have a Mercedes three-pointed star practically visible from space.

“One of our goals is to send a clear signal to Atlanta that we are here to stay, that we are part of this community,” said Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA.

Physical, cultural change

Cannon, a former Army Ranger with nine kids, is leading a move that is both physical and cultural for the famed company.

In January, Mercedes announced it will build a $93 million headquarters in Sandy Springs, while taking up temporary residence in an office complex near Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody. The company eventually will have about 800 to 1,000 workers at its permanent home.

State and local governments wooed Mercedes with an incentive package that could be worth more than $27 million.

So far, about 450 workers are stationed in Dunwoody, with nearly 300 having been hired locally in recent months, Mercedes officials said. Cannon said he expects construction of the permanent headquarters complex to start early next year, and a second wave of workers will move when the new headquarters opens in late 2017 or early 2018.

Cannon said the move, which officials have said started out as a cost-cutting exercise, became a transformation of the corporate culture. No more stodgy offices with walled-off Dilbert-style cubicles, he said. And many of the new hires come from outside the auto industry, bringing fresh ideas to Mercedes’ marketing, sales and other U.S. home office divisions.

Mercedes-Benz expects record sales this year, and it hopes to do the same in 2016 when nine models that are either all-new or largely refreshed are introduced.

A key to that is the GLC 300, the replacement to the popular GLK small SUV that was introduced in 2009. The new SUV is longer, wider and yet lighter than the outgoing model. It is more fuel efficient, Mercedes says, swapping a turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the outgoing model’s six-cylinder power plant.

“The luxury market is growing at almost twice the rate of the general auto market, and sport utilities are delivering all the growth in the U.S. market right now,” Cannon said. “Luxury, minus the trucks, would be almost flat.”

Why Atlanta made sense

With lower fuel prices and the U.S. demand for SUVs, particularly in the South, it made sense to hold the product unveiling in Atlanta, Mercedes officials said.

U.S. auto sales were up 5 percent to nearly 13.1 million in the first nine months of 2015, according to Automotive News. Mercedes sales are up 7.6 percent in that time, to more than 270,000 in the U.S.

The Southeast is becoming hub of automotive companies. Porsche this year opened its new North American headquarters and experience center — complete with a track — near the airport. Toyota is moving its U.S. headquarters from California to Texas.

South Carolina recently beat out Georgia for a new Volvo manufacturing plant, while Sprinter Vans, which like Mercedes is owned by German parent Daimler AG, is expanding its factory near Charleston.

In an interview Wednesday after a tour of the Falcons sales center, where journalists were shown a model of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a replica of a luxury box, Cannon said Mercedes’ presence in the region will only grow.

The automaker will likely hold its annual dealership meetings in Atlanta from now on, an event that attracts 1,200 executives. In June, 150 of the company’s top marketing experts from around the world will gather to learn about the brand’s partnership with the Falcons.

The GLC launch brought 40 journalists in two waves from outlets across the country. Cannon said he would like to have a global vehicle launch to coincide with the opening in 2017 of Mercedes-Benz Stadium that would draw hundreds of journalists from around the world.

Roger Tutterow, a Kennesaw State University economist, said a bump to the meeting business, philanthropy and support of artistic organizations are some of the perks of headquarters.

Among the charitable ventures Mercedes is supporting is Hands On Atlanta, and along with its stadium sponsorship it will help efforts to mentor youths in neighborhoods near the new downtown dome.

Tutterow said often the focus of a corporate relocation is on the promised jobs, but many sectors benefit. Even a gathering of media types can be a perk, he said.

“It … exposes the city of Atlanta to writers and industry experts who might not be here otherwise,” Tutterow said.