TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – For Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, it all began with the M-Class, a groundbreaking automobile that’s credited with creating the premium SUV segment. Then the automaker added the GL-Class sport utility and the R-Class crossover to an Alabama line-up now being produced in record numbers. So it’s no surprise that Mercedes is accelerating its Alabama growth engine.
In the next two years, the German automaker, which jumpstarted Alabama’s auto industry with a 1993 decision to build its first U.S. plant in the state, will roll out two new models from its Tuscaloosa assembly lines, hiring 1,400 new workers in the process. The company in the midst of a massive expansion campaign in Alabama to prepare for those model launches, and it has broken ground on a new logistics hub to support the assembly operation.
“Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us could have imagined that MBUSI would achieve the level of success that it has, in terms of the major capital investment and the significant economic impact on our community,” said Jason Hoff, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, as the Alabama operation is known. “Equally important is the way this plant has changed the lives of so many people, including the lives of our team members.”
Ongoing expansion at the company’s Tuscaloosa plant will boost productivity that already is running at record levels. Last year, the Alabama plant built more vehicles than any other years in its history, making more than 180,000 units. It also established a record for exports shipped, as the total value of Mercedes-Benz products coming from Alabama totaled between $5 billion and $6 billion.
The company’s initial $300 million capital investment in 1997 will soon total more than $2 billion, as Mercedes begins production next year of an all-new C-Class and then launches an undisclosed fifth vehicle in 2015. According to a 2011 report in The Wall Street Journal, the mystery car will be an “‘entirely new product’” aimed at U.S. sales. Mercedes officials will say only that it is an SUV.
“This new model from the Tuscaloosa plant is an important element of our growth strategy,” Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said at the time.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who saw a clay model of the vehicle on a visit to Mercedes in Germany, has said it looks “absolutely fantastic.”
HIRING 1,400 WORKERS
To produce more vehicles, more workers are needed. For the C-Class alone, Mercedes plans to hire 1,000 workers, and it will add another 400 for the fifth model. AIDT, an arm of the Alabama Department of Commerce, is working with Mercedes to screen applicants and, later on, train job candidates to ensure they are equipped and knowledgeable in the processes required for the plant’s advanced manufacturing techniques. (Read more about AIDT’s programs.)
Mercedes also is constructing a $70 million logistics hub on its Tuscaloosa campus to support the plant’s expanded production, a project that will create 600 jobs from the automaker, its contractors and its service providers.
Hoff said the plant’s Alabama workforce has made important contributions to the company’s global operations. For one thing, Mercedes says the Daimler AG powertrain plants in Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart-Untertuerkheim have benefited from the growth of the SUV segment built in Tuscaloosa.
“Over the years, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with colleagues in Germany to accomplish our goals,” he said. “Today, MBUSI team members are now supporting other plants with training and support and our plant’s contributions to Mercedes-Benz are recognized by our colleagues around the world. The positive way our plant is viewed is a direct result of our team members.”
Bharat Balasubramanian, a University of Alabama engineering professor who spent 15 years as head of engineering research and development at Mercedes, said it’s important for the state to maintain a competitive and skilled workforce that continues to innovate.
“I’m glad we still have the competitive spirit in automotive engineering, including the suppliers,” he said. “This is very important to society because without manufacturing jobs, you’re not going to be able to sustain a society over many generations just by doing design work and outsourcing it to the cheapest manufacturer.”