Porsche CEO touts Atlanta investment

Klaus Zellmer is an admitted gearhead.

Zellmer grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, and tinkered with his own fleet of eight Volkswagen Beetles as a teen. His love of cars led him to work for Porsche, where he rose through the ranks including stops in marketing, as the chief of Porsche in Germany and now as CEO of Atlanta-based Porsche Cars North America.

Zellmer first visited America during a cross-country trip in his teens in an old Oldsmobile Delta 88. He later returned during college, but living again in the U.S. was a “bucket list” item for the 48-year-old. In his nine months since taking over Porsche’s North American operations, Zellmer said his mission has been to expand the storied namplate’s largest market.

In a recent briefing with Atlanta media, Zellmer talked about the company’s growth plans, the potential for further development around its sleek headquarters near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the future of electrified and autonomous vehicles and the diesel emissions scandal that’s clouded Volkswagen AG and its Porsche and Audi brands.

On Porsche's U.S. performance: Zellmer said Porsche sold about 58,000 cars in the U.S. and Canada in the 12 months ended in June, only a few hundred more than in the Chinese market. But the U.S. remains critical to Porsche's plans as "it's the most competitive market in the world."

“If you can make it (in the U.S.) you can make it anywhere,” he said. But U.S. automobile registrations are plateauing as young adults aren’t getting licenses or buying cars at the rate of prior generations. Services like Zipcar, Uber and Lyft, as well as young professionals’ tendencies to live near cities with public transit, are factors in the ebbing love affair with cars.

Porsche officials still see growth potential in the luxury market.

On Porsche's new HQ: Zellmer touted the company's Atlanta headquarters, which has drawn 30,000 visitors in its first year. Guests can test the latest models on the track, host business conferences or have dinner at the Porsche Experience Center's restaurant, Restaurant 356. Customers can even arrange to pick up their new import at the headquarters.

In a sign of the U.S. market’s importance to Porsche, the brand is developing a second U.S. track outside Los Angeles that, at about four miles, will be about twice the size of the one here near Hartsfield-Jackson. (Porsche has additional land it could use for expansion in Atlanta.)

Porsche spent $100 million on its Atlanta campus, “the most money invested in any one place outside Germany,” Zellmer said.

“Porsche decided to stay in Atlanta because Porsche has great confidence in the development of Atlanta,” he said. “We need great talent and we find champions here.”

The headquarters gets about 25,000 applications a year for new jobs, but turnover is low. For now, Porsche has filled its ranks of about 400 employees, but it has room to expand its offices with a fourth floor in the new building that is currently unused.

On Atlanta's Southside: Porsche's headquarters stands on the site of a former Ford Motor Co. factory. It was once touted as Aerotropolis, though that name has grown to include the concept of a denser development throughout the airport area.

Earlier this year, a development team broke ground on a Solis luxury hotel that will serve the Porsche headquarters, the airport meeting and leisure travel business, weddings and potentially the film industry. Hapeville officials also hope it will help seed development in the area.

“The southern part of Atlanta needs someone to believe in it and invest in it,” Zellmer said, describing the headquarters campus as the anchor.

On new auto technologies: Zellmer said he sees both autonomous and electric-powered cars becoming "mainstream" in the years ahead.

“No doubt it will happen,” he said of electrics overtaking the industry. “That’s it, that’s going to come. We will have to live up to our Porsche DNA at the right price.”

A brand with a devoted following of driving enthusiasts, Porsche is attempting to develop autonomous and electric-powered autos that live up to the company’s sporting ethos, while the electric drive-train must deliver extended range with quick charges, Zellmer said.

Zellmer never mentioned the name Tesla, but it’s clear billionaire Elon Musk’s company is the target.

Porsche has promised to deliver an all-electric Tesla-fighter by the end of the decade that will reach 60 miles per hour in under 3.5 seconds, drive more than 300 miles on a single charge and re-charge its batteries to 80 percent power in less than 15 minutes.

Zellmer said Porsche also is investing in self-driving technology, but its buyers still want the cars to be a driver’s Porsche.

He said there are technological and legal issues to iron out, but the move to autonomous features has been a decades-long march starting with cruise control.

On the diesel emissions scandal: Zellmer said Porsche is working with regulators to put a diesel emissions scandal behind the company. Last month, Volkswagen settled cases with federal and state regulators totaling more than $15 billion over vehicles with 2.0-liter diesel engines rigged to cheat emissions tests.

Some 85,000 VW, Porsche and Audi vehicles with 3.0-liter diesel engines were also caught up in the scandal.

Zellmer said Porsche is working on plans to repair customers’ diesel models to bring them back into environmental compliance and to resume sales of unsold diesel vehicles.

He said he still sees a future for diesel-powered vehicles for Porsche.

“Our customers will decide that.”