Mercedes-Benz is the gift that keeps on giving for metro Atlanta. As if a gleaming new U.S. headquarters wasn’t enough, the German luxury auto maker today lavished the city with yet another major announcement.
In a nod to the city’s rise as a tech hub, company officials said at today’s grand opening that they will put the latest node in the Mercedes-Benz global innovation network in a separate, yet-to-be-determined location.
Lab1886, named after the year that the company’s German founders invented an early car, is an innovation incubator dedicated to coming up with solutions across the entire Daimler AG universe, which goes beyond luxury cars to Freightliner trucks and even to financial services.
Axel Harries, vice president of sales and product management, said it’s a nod to the company’s desire to blend the strengths of a market-leading corporation with a startup’s spirit of innovation as the auto sector sits on the cusp of rapid change.
When it opens this summer, Atlanta will be the just the second Lab1886 location outside of Germany, with three others already open in Stuttgart (Mercedes-Benz’s hometown), Berlin and Beijing.
Having a U.S. base here didn’t necessarily make Atlanta a lock for the new innovation office, which operates independently from Mercedes-Benz USA, Mr. Exler told Global Atlanta in an interview. But Lab1886 was drawn to Atlanta for many of the same factors, particularly the easy access to talent.
The incubator will be hosted separately from Mercedes-Benz USA, which today unveiled its new offices, a modern monument of glass, steel and concrete on 12 acres in Sandy Springs that will house more than 1,000 employees.
No word yet on where the innovation center will open its doors, but Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms hinted in her remarks that it could be located within the city of Atlanta.
The new headquarters in Sandy Springs made her admittedly “jealous,” she said, though she jokingly chided Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul by saying that the logo on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium downtown is “a little bit bigger.”
The stadium is a sign of the way the public and private sectors collaborate in Atlanta, the mayor said.
“It really is what sets us apart from so many other places,” Ms. Bottoms said.
The new innovation center will follow a trend of auto makers embracing the disruption that threatens their longstanding business models. It’s still unclear how autonomous or electric vehicles — not to mention ride-sharing giants like Uber and Lyft — will upend an industry that for decades has relied on selling directly to consumers.
Atlanta’s tech prowess also helped it draw the U.S. base for another group wrestling with these challenges: Groupe PSA, a French-German conglomerate that makes the Peugeot mark among other brands, picked Atlanta earlier this year.
For its part, Mr. Harries said Mercedes-Benz addresses the future of mobility with four strategic pillars under the CASE acronym: “Connected”, “Autonomous”, “Shared & Service” and “Electric Drive.”
“Each of these letters has the power to turn our entire industry upside-down,” Mr. Harries said. “We believe that the secret lies in combining them. By doing this, we want to give our customers convenient, intuitive products and services that make their lives and personal mobility easier.”
Though different from Lab1886, the 200,000-square-foot corporate headquarters itself will aim to foster more interaction among its employees, reflecting a shift in business practices toward quicker decision-making and flexibility.
“This amazing new building embodies the cultural change within our company,” Mr. Harries said.
It centers on a light-filled central atrium flanked by two three-story wings housing various departments, from sales and management to information technology. Quotes on the walls highlight inspirational insights from leaders — “We play to win!” — or employees — “Feedback is a gift…just say thank you.” One hallway displays framed photographs of Mercedes-Benzes submitted through an internal social-media contest.
The spirit of togetherness carries through an office whose colder modern design is meant to be offset by a feeling of spatial intimacy.
There are as many seats in booths, couches and conference rooms as there are individual workspaces — one of the touches designed to enhance collaboration and creativity. Among the many gathering areas is a Mercedes-Benz Stadium room, paying homage to the branded architectural marvel downtown that houses the Atlanta Falcons NFL franchise and the Atlanta United soccer team.
In some ways, work might seem like a one-stop shop for employees. A coffee bar with an in-house barista graces the central atrium. Nearby is restaurant-style cafe that uses locally sourced ingredients. (Any extra food is contributed to Second Helping Atlanta, a local nonprofit.)
Other amenities include the Little Stars Academy, an on-site daycare facility offered at a subsidized costs — a waiting list is already forming even before employees have officially moved in.
From 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., employees will also be able to avail themselves of the “Body Shop,” a 5,000-square foot fitness center that offers brand new equipment and a variety of classes at the modest cost of $25 per month.
Windows bring the outside in, and more than 780 trees were planted to offset those that were cleared for the site. Trees cut down were donated to country star Zac Brown’s Camp Southern Ground to be made into furniture.
German Luxury, American Impact
All this amounts to a giant validation of the state of Georgia’s No. 1 business ranking by “Site Selection” magazine for five years running, Gov. Nathan Deal said in his brief remarks.
“It is pretty difficult to top the seal of approval to the business community of the world any better than to have Mercedes-Benz decide that Georgia is where they want to have their North American headquarters,” Mr. Deal said.
Mr. Exler, the CEO, said he’d put the workforce in the state “up against anywhere in the world.”
Collaboration with the U.S. goes back to the earliest days of company, when Gottlieb Daimler teamed up with William Steinway (of piano fame) to build engines, Mr. Harries said.
Mr. Daimler, the story goes, paired a business trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with his honeymoon, a move that reportedly scored points with his new wife, Lina.
Fast forward 130 years, and the U.S. is a key market for the German brand, which outshines its compatriots in terms of sales performance.
Nearly 340,000 Benzes were sold in the U.S. last year, and a plant in Vance, Ala., serves as a global hub for the production of G-class SUVs, as well as producing the C-class sedan. Many of the more than 280,000 made-in-Alabama vehicles were exported around the world last year. The Daimler group employs 23,500 people in the U.S.
Mr. Exler shrugged off the idea that it’s more vital to showcase Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. impact now, as protectionism seems to be on the rise in the U.S.
“We’ve always been very proud of our factory in Alabama, and we’ve always communicated that, because the team there just did an awesome job. They are the forefront of development of the SUVs for us,” he told Global Atlanta, noting the fact that the company announced another billion-dollar investment in the plant that was first launched in 1995. “It’s an absolute success story.”
President Donald Trump last week announced tariffs on aluminum and steel that analysts say could impact German-owned plants using imported metals. Mr. Exler declined to comment on that issue.