Being German won't be a big issue for Siemens VDO Automotive Corp. as it takes control of its newest global operation in Huntsville, Ala.
The Regensburg-based electronics supplier usually goes out of its way to avoid flaunting its German heritage. In the United States, the supplier wants to operate as Americans. In China, it wants to operate as Chinese.
But in Huntsville, a city of 160,000 in northern Alabama cotton country, the community seems to cotton readily to incoming Germans.
The supplier can thank Wernher von Braun for that.
Huntsville has a fond history of German-accented civic leaders that goes back to the 1950s, when von Braun and Germany's top-ranking propulsion scientists moved to town to build rockets. In addition to putting the United States into the space program, the German science community that came to work at the local Redstone Arsenal influenced the development and style of Huntsville's suburbs in the 1960s. It also pressed the town to recruit electronics and biotechnical industry, build a university and a research park, and erect a planetarium.
Chrysler Corp. started the Huntsville Electronics plant in 1952, first to supply the space program and then to supply its own automotive operations.
More than 50 years later, Helmut Matschi, CEO of Siemens VDO's body and chassis electronics business, finds the town warm to the 150 or so management and engineering personnel arriving from Regensburg to take over the 2,300-employee plant.
"There was already a great deal of German history and culture here," Matschi says. "It's very good in that it's helped us be accepted here as guests."
But Siemens remains cautious. Its transition team learned from employee focus groups that workers had no problem with German managers taking control of the operation - as long as managers didn't converse among themselves in German to the exclusion of their English-speaking associates.
Siemens is trying to stick with English. But in the meantime, rather than downplaying the company's German heritage, it is entertaining ideas about accentuating it. Once things calm down at the supplier, Matschi says, Siemens will consider various cross-cultural efforts to bring more of Germany to northern Alabama, or more of Huntsville to Germany. The company is considering throwing some weight behind Huntsville's annual Germany-inspired Oktoberfest, which takes place at Redstone Arsenal.
Last month, the traditional German observance of Father's Day occurred mid-week. Some of Siemens' German nationals proposed celebrating it around the plant. That idea was tabled, Matschi says with amusement.
"So many ideas seem to come up during every dinner," he says. "We have a lot of ideas now about what we should do here."