Industry reporter talks Mercedes impact, future of Alabama auto sector

Worker in Alabama's Hyundai plant checks paperwork on car leaving assembly line.
Photo By:

Arik Sokol


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — For the past six years, Dawn Kent Azok, a reporter for the Alabama Media Group, has covered the twists and turns of the Alabama auto sector. Reporting on scores of events and interviewing people both in the drivers’ seat and the executive chair, she has told story after story of how one industry has changed the lives of thousands of hard-working Alabamians.

Dawn Kent Azok covers the auto industry for The Birmingham News/
Dawn Kent Azok covers the auto industry for The Birmingham News/

This week, Azok has been covering the 20-year anniversary of Mercedes-Benz‘s announcement that it would open a plant near Vance, Ala., where it now makes the flagship M-Class, GL-Class and R-Class vehicles, with an additional two models joining the production line-up in the next two years.

She took a few minutes to talk with Made In Alabama about her time covering the past, present and future of the state’s auto industry.

When did you begin covering the auto industry?

I started covering the auto industry in January 2007. One of my first stories was about the 10th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz production in Alabama, which began in February 1997. So I learned a lot about that company early on.

Describe how you cover the state’s auto industry as a reporter.

I try to focus on the things that are specifically related to the auto companies’ operations in Alabama. That would include sales and quality reports for the state-made models, as well as workplace activity such as expansions, cutbacks, new models and labor unions. Of course, these are international companies so I also keep an eye on their operations elsewhere, because that might affect the local plants.

How have you seen the state’s auto industry evolve since you began covering it?

Huge swings. When I started in 2007, it was a good year for the industry, and I was writing about record high production. Then the global sales slump hit in 2008, so I was writing about production cuts and layoffs. Like the rest of the domestic industry, the state industry has made a comeback over the past few years, so I am again writing about record highs.

What type of economic impact have Mercedes and the other automakers in the state had?

Here a couple of numbers to consider: Last month, there were more than 33,000 motor vehicle manufacturing and motor vehicle parts manufacturing jobs Alabama, according to Bureau of Labor data. That doesn’t include all of the indirect jobs at other support businesses. Also consider the state’s export growth over the past decade, which has been driven by auto exports. Last year alone, state exports hit a record high of $19.5 billion, and more than a third of that was transportation equipment, which includes vehicles.

Business recruiters also talk about the economic impact that isn’t necessarily measurable. Mercedes brought a lot of attention to the state, and the work force that has built up around the auto industry has been cited by other companies that have moved operations here, like Airbus.

What’s the significance of the two future products that Mercedes will roll out in the next two years?

The C-Class sedan, which will launch next year, is an entirely new type of vehicle for the Tuscaloosa County plant, which has a lineup that is so far limited to SUVs and crossovers. The C-Class is also one of Mercedes’ most popular models and seen as an entry to the brand for many buyers. Officially, we don’t know a lot about the so-called fifth model yet, except that it is expected to be an SUV. Combined, the two new models are responsible for 1,400 new jobs at the local plant, so that’s significant.

What makes this 20-year anniversary important?

Mercedes’ decision to build its plant in Alabama kicked off the auto industry here, and it also helped launch the sector across the Southeastern U.S. (Read a Made In Alabama article on how Mercedes set the foundation for Alabama’s auto industry.)

Do you expect to see more supplier announcements in the coming months and years?

Yes, we should see more. The latest string of supplier announcements have been mostly related to the addition of the C-Class sedan at the Mercedes plant. And while I think most of those decisions have been made by now (production launch of the C-Class is next year) there is always the potential for supplier shifts when models are redesigned. Plus, Mercedes has a fifth model, expected to be an SUV, that is scheduled to go into production in Alabama in 2015, so there could be new supplier business tied to that. I also see ongoing potential for new suppliers for Honda, Hyundai and other automakers in the Southeast.

How does the auto industry intersect with the other parts of Alabama’s economy?

Exports, which I’ve already mentioned, is a key area. Also, the jobs provided by the industry give people the means to support businesses in communities across the state.

Anything else you want to add about Mercedes or about the state’s auto sector as a whole?

If you’ve never been inside an auto plant, you should take advantage of the public tours they offer. It’s a fun trip.

Read Azok’s anniversary coverage of Mercedes in Alabama: