TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Economic development leaders, auto industry figures, corporate business executives and elected officials gathered in Tuscaloosa tonight, not to cheer on the national championship Crimson Tide team but to celebrate Alabama’s other claim to fame – Mercedes-Benz’s Alabama automotive assembly plant, which last year alone produced 180,379 vehicles.
Mercedes-Benz’s 1993 decision to build its first U.S. assembly plant in Alabama represented a major strategic move for the German automaker, and the facility continues to play a significant role in the company’s production pipeline, according to a key Daimler executive.
“Our decision for Tuscaloosa triggered one of the most important developments in our recent corporate history,” said Andreas Renschler, a member of the Daimler board of management who served as the Alabama plant’s first CEO. “As the first full-production plant outside of Germany, it represents a proud story of success for Mercedes-Benz.”
Renschler, now head of manufacturing and procurement for Mercedes-Benz cars and vans, was back in Alabama today as part of a celebration to mark the 20th anniversary of the automaker’s announcement that it would build an assembly plant in Tuscaloosa County. Key Mercedes executives and Alabama government and business leaders gathered tonight at the North River Yacht Club to reflect on the impact the project has had on both the company and Alabama, which has grown to become a major center of auto production.
At a ceremony tonight, Renschler said the company’s decision to select Alabama was correct and that he expects the partnership between the automaker and Alabama to be just as strong in another 20 years. “‘Bama and Benz is more than a business relationship,” he said.
Mercedes has assembled more than 1.8 million vehicles in Alabama since production was launched in 1997. Last year, Mercedes built a record total of automobiles in Tuscaloosa, and its Alabama-built products accounted for 15 percent of the company’s passenger car sales. In 2012, it shipped $5 billion worth of Alabama-made vehicles to 135 markets across the globe.
“All-in-all, I think it’s fair to say that Mercedes has truly become a productive and proud citizen of this great state,” Renschler said at a press conference today. “And I may not be in a position to judge how much our plant has changed the face of Alabama, but I can guarantee you our Alabama plant has changed the face of our company.”
Renschler said he expects even bigger things from the Alabama operation known as Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI). The plant plans to add 1,000 workers to launch production of the next-generation C-Class sedan next year. It’s adding another 400 team members at the Tuscaloosa plant to begin production of a sport utility vehicle in 2015.
“Twenty years ago, the question at Daimler was ‘Tusca … where?’ Renschler said at the press conference. “Today, our most talented people are waiting in line to work here.”
Mercedes’ investment in the project now stands at more than $4 billion and the Alabama assembly plant has about 3,000 team members. The M-Class, a highly successful product now in its third generation, is still assembled there, along with two other vehicles: the GL-Class full-size sport utility and the R-Class crossover vehicle.
LAUNCHING AN INDUSTRY
Alabama officials say Mercedes’ decision to build in Alabama cleared the path for other global auto manufacturers – Honda, Hyundai and Toyota – to establish operations in the state. A network of more than 130 suppliers also sprang up in Alabama to serve them. Business Facilities magazine this year called Alabama a “rising automotive powerhouse.” (Read more about the statewide industry impact that followed Mercedes.)
“This was all made possible in 1993 when local and state leaders made up their minds to pursue Mercedes,” Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said. “They were undeterred, even when faced with criticism. Over the past 20 years, what we dreamed Mercedes would be for this state has proven to be true. MBUSI is growing, and it is a strong part of this community, providing well-paying jobs for the people of Alabama.”
At the press conference, Bentley said Mercedes has had a profound and lasting effect on Alabama’s economy and its attractiveness to businesses around the globe. “Had it not been for Mercedes-Benz coming to Alabama, I would not have able to recruit Airbus to Mobile,” he said.
Renschler played a major role in the automaker’s decision to select Alabama. Back in 1993, he was a member of the team of Mercedes executives who worked with a site selection firm to fine the best North American home for the assembly plant. At the time, he was leader of Mercedes’ “Multi-Purpose Vehicle” project that ended up producing the M-Class, the world’s first luxury SUV.
Alabama had plenty of competition for the assembly plant. Mercedes says it evaluated 150 sites in 30 states over five months in 1993. In the end, Alabama beat out finalists North Carolina and South Carolina for the coveted industrial prize, making headlines across the globe. (Read a story on Alabama’s recruitment of Mercedes.)
Renschler was the Alabama plant’s first president and CEO, a position he held until 1999, when he left to become a senior vice president for executive management development for what was then called DaimlerChrysler. He later headed the company’s Smart unit and Daimler’s truck division.
With the Alabama plant, Renschler said Mercedes was able to take the approach of starting from scratch without the burden of doing things like it did before, simply for the sake of how the company had done things in the past.
“That mindset is still here with our people, no matter if their collar is white or blue,” he said today. “The great thing is that just like we export our Alabama cars around the world, we also export that spirit around Daimler.”
Jason Hoff, the current president and CEO of MBUSI, said the Alabama plant is an important component in the company’s international operations. “The team members we have, and the management we have, are the reason for our success,” he said today. “There are 3,000 great team members at MBUSI and every day they come in and show us why we can be successful here, and it’s a … great testament to what the state can offer, not only to us but to all the businesses that come here.”