Matthias Hoffmann got in before the lockdown. It was early March, and while people in Atlanta had stopped shaking hands, he could still feel the Southern hospitality as he was escorted around a “fantastic green city” by his predecessor. He even ate inside at some of the city’s restaurants — a pastime that now seems like a distant memory.
When Mr. Hoffmann returned to Greece, the new German-American Chamber of Commerce South president had no idea that he would be separated from what is to be his new home by a pandemic (and an ocean) for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Hoffmann officially started at the chamber April 1, in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown in Europe and the U.S. that has stalled travel and kept him from physically moving to Atlanta.
For now, he remains content in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he has spent more than a decade with the north branch of the German-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce.
“When I need to print a lot of stuff, I have a place,” he joked with Global Atlanta via Zoom video call, noting that he will be happy to trade palms for pine trees as soon as possible. “Coming from Greece I have a nice view over the Mediterranean Sea, but I believe I’m not going to miss that too much in Atlanta.”
He hasn’t touched down, but figuratively he has hit the ground running. Mr. Hoffmann believes that the quick trip to Atlanta helped smooth out what might have been an awkward transition to leading a well established organization via Zoom calls from seven hours ahead.
During the visit, he was hosted by outgoing President Stefanie Ziska, who left to take up a similar post in Zagreb, Croatia after three years at the GACC South’s helm. He also met with the chamber’s board of directors, which includes executives from the likes of Porsche Cars North America, Volkswagen, Continental Tire, Mercedes-Benz, AGCO Corp. and more.
“These in-person meetings helped me a lot now in these virtual settings,” Mr. Hoffmann said, though he noted that first-time chats with with GACC chapter heads in the Carolinas have also gone smoothly online.
“It didn’t really feel like I haven’t met them before. People are in my opinion, especially in the South, very warm-hearted, hospitable and with a smile on their face. It’s a business environment, yes, but still I do not feel like an intruder or something. There are other countries where my transition time would have been much more difficult.”
The feeling goes both ways. Porsche North American chairman and CEO Klaus Zellmer, also GACC South Chairman, said in a statement that Mr. Hoffmann”combines a clear understanding of our members’ needs with a global background and contact network that will assist him in achieving our goals.”
During the last week of April, Mr. Hoffmann got an even deeper glimpse at the German firms operating in the Southern U.S. as he presided over a virtual version of the chamber’s annual meeting attended by nearly 100 member companies.
In some ways, he foresees geography being a challenge that he hasn’t yet faced in Greece, a country with a population almost identical to Georgia’s with most of the German corporate presence concentrated in a few major hubs. By contrast, the GACC South covers 11 states and even areas in the Caribbean like Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
By the same token, interfacing with companies a fast-growing corner of the world’s largest consumer market was the very thing that intrigued him about the job. His March visit also included stops in Tennessee and Alabama.
“Seeing all this density of German companies and German investment in the Southern states, I really believe that it’s a real economic powerhouse there,” said Mr. Hoffmann, who grew up near Stuttgart and completed internships at automotive companies before going to college in Bamberg, not too far from Atlanta’s sister city of Nuremberg in Bavaria.
Mr. Hoffmann also believes his time in Greece has provided unique preparation for what could be a rocky post-COVID-19 period for German enterprises operating in the U.S.
“I believe I can really focus quickly on developing tailored services that apply to the recent situation. That’s probably my strength that I’m bringing in. With Greece being in a really deep crisis and recession over almost a decade, I really think that I’m a crisis-proven manger and I understand how companies are suffering during these times.”
He has also had a front seat to how the COVID-19 crisis unfolded earlier than in the U.S. Many of the German-Hellenic chamber’s members also had operations in China, providing insight in what became weekly pandemic-related conference calls with 60-80 other heads of the German chamber’s 92-country network globally.
Upon arrival in the South, Mr. Hoffmann will be thinking through how to adapt GACC South’s services, like market-entry consulting, for the new realities of the post-COVID world. Perhaps instead of focusing only on new investors, where activity may be slower, the chamber will have to put more emphasis on helping existing companies in the region.
But it’s too early to form specific plans. What is clear from Mr. Hoffman’s perspective is that the chamber’s staff of “digital natives” has been successful in pivoting its offerings online in the work-from-home era.
After quickly spinning up a COVID-19 resources page, the GACC South has now delivered 30-plus webinars with more than 1,000 attendees, and its consulting arm is continuing to take on new projects. A survey is in the works to gauge members’ coronavirus concerns. The exercise has offered new insight into how the chamber might continue to engage with stakeholders in a widely dispersed region even when a “new normal” takes root.
“I want to work also on decentralization and regionalization. If coronavirus did one good thing to us, it was driving us in terms of digital concepts,” Mr. Hoffmann said.
Whatever happens in the short run, this won’t be a time he will soon forget: Mr. Hoffmann will eventually arrive in Atlanta with his new Greek wife, whom he married in a socially distanced ceremony at the courthouse with just two witnesses.
“My grandchildren will probably ask me why grandma and granddad were wearing masks during their wedding ceremony.”