In late September 1993, 18-wheelers loaded with Mercedes-Benz vehicles left New Jersey bound for … somewhere.
The cars were to be part of the display for one of the biggest economic development announcements in U.S. history. Mercedes had decided to build its first auto plant outside of Germany and it was down to two states for the project.
The odds-on favorite was North Carolina. The Washington Post had even published a story declaring the Tar Heel State the victor.
But those 18-wheelers were making their way down the Eastern Seaboard, the drivers stopping every 100 miles to phone in and get directions for their next leg of the trip.
As we all now know, that trip ended in Tuscaloosa and started Alabama on its own journey of prosperity in the automotive industry and put it on the map for numerous other economic development successes.
Some of the key participants in that recruitment shared the stage, for the first time ever, Thursday night at the Barber Motorsports Park & Museum as a panel kicking off Starfest 2018 for the Mercedes-Benz Club of America.
The secrecy surrounding the Mercedes recruitment was among the topics as the panelists offered a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations of winning the project.
Jim Folsom Jr. had moved from lieutenant governor to governor after then-Gov. Guy Hunt was ousted from office on ethics violations. Beyond that, the state was hurting as the textiles industry left the state – to the tune of 82,000 jobs over several years – and unemployment was at 8 percent. The loss of tax revenue mandated cuts in the state’s education budget.
“In very short words, the state was struggling,” said Don Erwin, vice president of corporate development at the Barber Companies, who moderated Thursday’s panel.
Within a day or two after he took office, Folsom was encouraged to appoint Billy Joe Camp director of the Alabama Development Office. Camp was the secretary of state at the time but agreed to make the move to focus on economic development.
It wasn’t long before Project Rosewood emerged. Camp initially thought what was described as a European automotive project was Volvo, but soon learned it was Mercedes. Folsom told
Camp to give the project all his attention.
“We set out in earnest to pursue this project,” Folsom said. “We were dedicated and focused to landing this project because we all felt that in the future it would be a springboard to future development in the automobile industry, which has taken place.”
Camp was able to establish a relationship with the site consulting firm Mercedes had hired. To entice the site consultants to his hospitality suite at an event in Atlanta, Camp brought along a distinguished guest. Alabama Crimson Tide head football coach Gene Stallings was fresh off his college football national championship and was brought along to draw people to the Alabama suite.
Once Camp got the site consultant in the room, he asked if the rumors were true that Project Rosewood had already chosen North Carolina from the sites under consideration. The consultant said not yet and the project would like to see a meaningful proposal from Alabama.
“What would be meaningful?” Camp asked the consultant.
He responded, “My folks know full well what BMW got in South Carolina and they think they’re a heck of a lot better than BMW.”
“So that gave me an idea of where we needed to go,” Camp said.
Alabama trimmed its sites from three to one. Sites in Cullman, Anniston and Tuscaloosa County were originally up for the project, but Alabama decided to push the Tuscaloosa County site near Vance. It was the same site the state had submitted to General Motors for the Saturn plant that went to Tennessee a few years earlier.
When it came time for the Mercedes team to visit, the team did not include Andreas Renschler, the man who would head the new plant.
Alabama officials took that to mean that the state was not high enough on the list to rate a visit from Renschler, and the states that did get a visit from him were in the lead.
Camp had learned that a highly placed Mercedes executive or board member had been incarcerated in Alabama during World War II. His only impression of Alabama was that it was undeveloped and backward. And one thing about the rural people stood out.
“You’ve got to convince these folks that the people of Alabama wear shoes,” the same consultant from the Atlanta suite told Camp.
So Camp and Alabama officials hosted the site team at Tuscaloosa’s swanky North River Yacht Club and gave them first-class treatment in their Tuscaloosa visit.
Camp asked the consultant after the first day how things were going.
“Billy Joe, this is shoes,” was his response.
He then took the site team to Birmingham for a dinner at a doctor’s home. The homeowner made sure his Mercedes G-Wagen was parked out front.
Renschler was on the team that made the next visit to Alabama.
Linda Sewell was the first employee hired for the new company, Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, and was part of the site selection team for the company.
She said over five months, the team whittled down the search from hundreds of sites to 20 and then to 12, six and three: North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.
“Through the process, Alabama kept popping up and we thought it was a fluke,” she said. “Once we visited the six final states … Alabama soon rose to the top.”
She said it was the attitude and commitment of the Alabama team that stood out.
“What we felt in Alabama from the very beginning was something different than any other state,” she said. “We felt like the folks in Alabama said, ‘Your success will be our success. Your failure will be our failure.’”
Still, Alabama had its image problems and some at Mercedes were concerned about tarnishing the brand.
“I can tell you the image of Alabama was not commensurate with the image of Mercedes,” she said. “But yet, the site selection team felt something here. It wasn’t just a feeling, we visited other businesses and other industries.
“What we felt, head and heart, was that Alabama had something going for it even though the image might not have been what the reality was.”
Heinz Neunzig was also a member of the Mercedes site selection team and his family would be one of those to move to the new state from Germany.
He said he didn’t know much about North Carolina or Alabama and had some knowledge of Charleston, S.C.
When Alabama was chosen, his wife had to look at a map to learn where it was.
He admitted there was some trepidation to making the move, but Birmingham and Tuscaloosa put together a welcoming committee to prepare them for life in the South.
One of the speakers told them, “If you want to have a very good life in the South, don’t speak to Southerners about three things: politics, religion and sex.”
Neunizig wondered what was left to talk about.
He was told things like hunting, fishing, sports and football were good topics.
“Oh, football. That’s good. We love football,” Neunzig thought. “But then we learned, no, it’s not German football, it’s American football.”
Tuscaloosa officials found a host family for every German family that made the move to Alabama. In Neunzig’s case, the host family had three sons, all the same ages as his three sons. The wife was a teacher, just like Neunzig’s wife. And the husband had a Jeep and loved off-road driving, which Neunzig also loved to do with his G-Wagen.
Neunzig said the plan had been to go back to Germany after five years, but his family decided to stay and remains here today.
Elmer Harris was CEO of Alabama Power at the time and played a key role in the economic development efforts and recruitment of Mercedes.
“Mercedes-Benz is a great company,” he said. “I’ve gone all over the world and the real reason that I wanted Mercedes in the great state of Alabama is to never ever hear again, ‘Now where is Alabama?’ I’ve never had that question again anywhere I’ve been since Mercedes-Benz showed up.”
Watch the entire event below.