The CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA discussed the company’s new local headquarters, life in his new hometown of Brookhaven, and self-driving cars at a Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce lunch Oct. 11 at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel.
Dietmar Exler, who became the luxury car-maker’s USA CEO on Jan. 1, said the company’s “culture…changed drastically” as a result of hiring 300 new employees locally after moving last year from New Jersey to Perimeter Center.
Many of those new employees are millennials from outside the company or even the auto industry, and they have a more collaborative mindset. That’s one reason, Exler said, that the company’s new headquarters under construction in Sandy Springs has “small ‘me’ space and a lot of ‘we’ space.”
“Don’t underestimate, if you bring 300 young people in…the energy and the passion they bring,” Exler said in a conversation with Jim Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Sandy Springs-based CBT Automotive Network.
For employees moving down from New Jersey or elsewhere, metro Atlanta’s rush-hour traffic is proving to be a culture shock, Exler said. During a question-and-answer period, one attendee said she lives in a townhome complex a block from MBUSA’s new headquarters at Abernathy and Barfield roads and that residents are “seeing a lot of people interested in purchasing our homes.” She asked whether they are MBUSA employees.
Exler said that is possible because many employees are finding the local commute to MBUSA’s temporary headquarters in Dunwoody to be worse than expected. Some are looking to move “in close proximity” to the Sandy Springs headquarters, he said.
Exler said he is dealing with his own relatively short commute from Brookhaven, but gave no sign of moving closer to the office.
“I love Brookhaven,” he said after the lunch, adding that he lives in the Ashford-Dunwoody Road corridor.
Exler is originally from Austria and most recently lived in the Detroit area. During the lunch conversation, he said he got a taste of Southern hospitality on his first day living in Brookhaven. The neighbors came and “invited me to the birthday party of a guy down the street,” he said, adding that he and his wife immediately attended, bringing a bottle of wine as a gift.
MBUSA’s new headquarters is set to open in early 2018 and will stand alongside a new housing development from the company Ashton Woods. While MBUSA was welcomed by Sandy Springs, the overall redevelopment of the heavily wooded former Glenridge estate and demolition of a historic mansion across Abernathy was intensely controversial.
“You probably all know we bought that piece of land that was wooded, and to build the headquarters, we had to cut down some trees,” Exler said.
He said Trees Atlanta reviewed the headquarters site for any significant old trees and found none. The timber from some trees has been donated to Camp Southern Ground, a Fayetteville summer camp for children with various emotional, social or behavioral issues that was founded by country musician Zac Brown. MBUSA is also replanting some trees, he said.
While awaiting the new headquarters, MBUSA is temporarily based in an office building on Ashford-Dunwoody Road in Dunwoody. Exler said it is a good location, but compared it to renting an apartment versus buying or building a house. Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal, in the question period, praised MBUSA as a “good corporate neighbor” and said the company is welcome to return.
The move is not MBUSA’s only transition. Former CEO Steve Cannon, who also spoke to the chamber almost exactly a year ago, resigned in December 2015 to lead the company that owns the Atlanta Falcons and the new downtown football stadium for which MBUSA bought naming rights. Exler said he remains close to Cannon and consults him for advice.
Exler also discussed the future of self-driving and electric vehicles.
He predicted that fully autonomous, or self-driving, cars could be making highway trips within a decade, but that autopilot driving on side streets will remain a longer challenge. He said that MBUSA vehicles already have some “autonomous features” that detect when the car is veering out of a lane or about to hit a car in front of it. But a fully self-driving car has “some technical pitfalls, and then there’s human behavior.”
A vehicle detecting lanes on a snow-covered road is one technical issue, but “the engineers will figure it out,” he said. The human factor is the bigger challenge in such situations as bumper-to-bumper traffic. Such driving is technically illegal, so cars can’t be programmed to do it automatically, and other drivers would cut into the gaps anyway, Exler predicted.
“The only question is, are you going to go nuts first, or the guy behind you? Who’s screaming first?” he said.
As for electric vehicles, MBUSA will release its first such model two years from now, and will have a line of 10 models by 2025, Exler said. The push is driven by government mileage regulations, he said, adding that market leader Tesla is still losing money on car sales due to battery costs.
Asked by Sandy Springs City Councilmember John Paulson about millennial drivers, Exler said they currently are buying cars later in life. While millennials are stereotyped as living car-free in cities, Exler said that appears to be a temporary economic trend, with more people of that generation moving into traditional suburbs and driving.