Blank’s new CEO tackles career change

On the job less than two months as CEO of the Falcons’ parent company — the highest-ranking position in the organization except for owner Arthur Blank — Steve Cannon is immersed in an improbable career change from automobiles to sports.

“I’m on a tremendous learning curve,” he said. “Every morning, I open up the fire hose on full spigot, and I don’t turn it off until 10 or 11 hours later when I leave the office. I’m on a mission to get as smart as I can as fast as I can.”

A West Point graduate who spent two decades in the automotive industry, including the past four years as president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, Cannon began work Feb. 1 as chief executive officer of AMB Group, the parent company of four Blank-owned businesses: the Falcons, soccer team Atlanta United, retail chain PGA Tour Superstore and a Montana guest ranch. Cannon leads all business operations of the four entities.

Blank created the new CEO position because of his desire to step back from day-to-day management responsibilities, making it clear from the start of a six-month search that sports-industry experience wasn’t required in candidates. And even as he rushes to catch up on the intricacies of the Blank businesses, Cannon said his career change isn’t as radical as it might seem on the surface.

“Moving from one passionate object to another one — i.e., cars to sports — is not all that different,” he said. “My primary job is not to … know sports better than everybody else doing it their whole lives, but it’s to bring them together and to find a way to make that team excel and give them the tools they need. This is first and foremost a leadership challenge that obviously is tied to a business challenge.”

The common thread between his current and former jobs, Cannon said, is the goal of creating the best possible customer experience.

In an hour-long interview at AMB Group’s offices in Buckhead this past week, Cannon discussed his unconventional path to one of the top jobs in Atlanta sports.

He grew up in New Jersey, “one of six kids in a competitive family,” and was on the football and wrestling teams in high school. His four years at the U.S. Military Academy were “the most formative experience of my life.” He then served five years in the Army, mostly stationed in West Germany.

He began his automotive career in 1991 as chief of staff to the CEO of Mercedes-Benz North America, the predecessor to Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA). The company soon moved him to Stuttgart, Germany, and later tapped him for a role helping launch its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Alabama.

He left Mercedes in 2000 and two years later joined Dallas-based advertising agency The Richards Group to work on the Hyundai account. He returned to MBUSA as vice president of marketing in 2007 and became president and CEO in 2012.

Cannon met Blank in October 2014, although without being able to introduce himself.

Mercedes was secretly considering moving its U.S. headquarters out of Montvale, N.J., and was looking at metro Atlanta and other possible destinations. A group led by Cannon came here for two days of meetings with politicians and business leaders. Most of the participants in those meetings, including Blank, weren’t told what company the visitors represented.

“We were ‘Company X,’” Cannon recalled with a laugh.

“Arthur didn’t know who we were, but he knew we must be a big company because the (Metro Atlanta) Chamber had called and said you need to come talk to these folks. We had a great stand-up conversation where he talked about Atlanta and what it has meant to him and what a great business environment — the usual sales thing. And then he said, ‘Who knows, maybe you guys will put your name on our stadium?’

“I sort of quipped back to him, ‘Well, we already have our name on one.’ I could see his brain started ticking away (trying to figure out which one).”

Mercedes-Benz chose metro Atlanta for its U.S. headquarters early last year, relocating to temporary offices in Dunwoody and announcing plans to build a new campus in Sandy Springs. Cannon asked his marketers to seek ways the company could become visible here.

“I sent them out fishing for a couple of bass, and they came back with a whale,” he said.

Their whale of an idea was to buy naming rights to the new Falcons stadium, despite a deal that runs through 2021 with New Orleans’ Superdome. Last summer, a 27-year deal was reached with the Falcons and approved by Mercedes’ board of directors in Germany.

The naming-rights negotiations were completed about the time Blank began his search for a CEO. Cannon said he first heard of the job from a “West Point buddy,” who was contacted by executive-search firm Korn Ferry but thought Cannon might be a better fit. The next day, Cannon said, “I decided to make that phone call to the recruiter to say, ‘Can I throw my hat in on this one?’”

Cannon said he’d known for a couple of years that he probably would leave Mercedes at some point because the next move in his career path there would have meant again relocating to Germany, which he ruled out for family reasons.

Cannon said, as Blank did in an earlier interview, that he didn’t feel it was awkward for Cannon to join the Falcons so soon after the companies reached the naming deal.

“(Blank) did ask the question, ‘Do you feel like you can pivot from working with these guys to create a deal to now being the CEO?’” Cannon said. “I said, ‘100 percent.’ … That happens all the time. One minute you’re colleagues, and the next minute you’re in charge.”

Cannon and Blank said they didn’t discuss the position until after the naming deal was done. Once he became a candidate, Cannon estimates he had about a dozen interviews, meetings and meals with Blank before he was hired in December.

Cannon believes a recommendation from The Richards Group’s founder, whom Blank knew well from his days at Home Depot, helped. So did a video Blank found on YouTube that Cannon had filmed years earlier about leadership philosophies.

“There was just this really strong values fit, this strong culture fit, that I think eventually led to (Blank’s) decision — maybe the unlikely decision — that I’m going to hire an automotive CEO to run my companies,” Cannon said.

A self-described “ESPN junkie,” he joins the Blank organization as it gears up for the opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the debut of Atlanta United and the expansion of PGA Tour Superstore.

“It’s our job … to deliver a fan experience that will not just satisfy but will be delightful,” Cannon said. “We’re shooting for the stars here.

“Six weeks in, I already know I’m in the right place.”

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