By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on August 28, 2015
What a splashy week for Mercedes -Benz USA in Atlanta. If folks in town had not realized that Mercedes-Benz USA has moved its headquarters to Atlanta, they probably know now.
The week started on Monday, Aug. 24, when Mercedes-Benz officially announced it had signed a 27-year agreement for the naming rights to the new Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United stadium.
On Tuesday, Stephen Cannon, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, was outside the company’s temporary headquarters on Perimeter Center North handing over the keys to specialized, fully-loaded Mercedes van to the Community Assistance Center, which serves people in need in both the Sandy Springs and Dunwoody communities. (MBUSA is currently in Dunwoody, but it is building a new headquarters in Sandy Springs, one that’s trading “me space into we space”).
And then on Thursday, Cannon was scheduled to be at the Metro Atlanta Chamber hosting a breakfast for Hands On Atlanta. Mercedes-Benz is the presenting sponsor for Hands On Atlanta Day 2015 — the organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Cannon, the newcomer (the company opened its Atlanta headquarters on July 6) is urging his fellow CEOs to support the volunteer-based nonprofit.
For Cannon, it’s all about leadership and giving back. And he certainly wouldn’t complain if Atlantans bought a few more Mercedes than they currently do. “Atlanta is not one of our top 20 markets,” Cannon said towards the end of a two-and-a-half hour interview. “We have been outsold by BMW and Lexus in Atlanta, but we are going to change that.”
Change is one way to describe what is happening at Mercedes-Benz USA.
Cannon said that moving to Atlanta has caused the entire company to go outside its comfort zone. He is using the move as an opportunity to flatten the organization, do some spring cleaning, and to redesign the way the automaker is conducting business.
The changes have been so bold that its Germany-based parent company, Daimler, is asking its other entities: “What’s your Atlanta?”
Cannon acted as interpreter. “When they say ‘What’s your Atlanta?’, what they’re asking is, ‘What’s your big, bold move?’ ” Cannon said. “That’s coming from Germany.”
The boldest move was announcing the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Although Cannon and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank did not disclose the terms of the deal, it is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars over 27 years. “This is the single-biggest deal we have done in our history,” is all Cannon would say.
“Why I love this deal is because it works on so many levels,” Cannon continued. “First, there’s the local piece, us coming in as the new member of the community and putting a stake in the ground with that brand is amazing. Then we’re aligning ourselves with two major league sports franchises.”
He fully expects the stadium to host national and international events and says that will help the Mercedes brand get national exposure. “We are going to get local impact, regional [impact] and national impact,” he said. “But I don’t know if this deal would have happened if it had been an ordinary design. This was stunning. It ended up not being a hard sell.”
And he loves having a footprint in the heart of his new hometown. “The fact that this is a downtown location is very important to us,” Cannon said. “We made the decision that we wanted to be part of the fabric in the community.” Cannon, however, is sensitive to the fact that Mercedes-Benz targets the wealthy — which he referred to as “the 1 percent.”
Contrast that with where the stadium is being built — across Northside Drive from Vine City and English Avenue — two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
“All the goodwill in the world is not going to turn Mercedes-Benz into a brand that everybody in the world is going to be able to consume,” Cannon said. “But I can make it a brand that people will like.”
That’s why he is committed to getting involved with the Westside and becoming an active member of Atlanta’s business community. It also fits in with his world view. “The best part about being the boss is that you get to drive culture. That’s my No. 1 job,” Cannon said. “Great companies give back.” And he encourages the automaker’s 375 dealers in the United States to do the same.
“It’s especially for a luxury brand like Mercedes that caters to the 1 percent. People are attracted to brands that they like,” Cannon said. “Giving back connects people to a higher purpose. One of the biggest jobs for a leader is giving its people a sense of purpose.”
Cannon said he learned about leadership when he went to West Point and served as a U.S. Army Ranger patrolling the West German border before the Berlin Wall came down.
“The craft of leadership is so important,” Cannon said. “I’m not a car guy. I’m a leadership guy. Everybody models the leader. You are being observed every second of everyday. You can have an off moment, but you are never allowed to have an off day. The purpose is to foster the culture that we want.”
Cannon, 54, has nine children (ages 9 to 28) – thanks to a blended family. When they met, his wife had five children and he had three. Together they have a 9-year-old daughter.
Originally, they had planned to move the family next spring when one of their daughters would graduate from high school. But that was causing anxiety in the company, so Cannon said they moved up the move to December. (The senior will stay with her dad until she graduates). They are looking to buy a house in the Buckhead area.
Although they are leaving a community where his wife has lived for 25 years, Cannon told her to look at the move as a great adventure.
And Cannon can’t wait to become more involved locally — as evidenced by the past week’s events. “I’m so excited to be part of the Atlanta business community. I had no community like that in Montvale, N.J.,” said Cannon, who added a tease. “We have only been here for a few months. There’s more to come.”