20 years Tuscaloosa – How the whirlwind of magic began

September 29, 1993. Never could I have imagined how much that date would affect me. That was the date the announcement was made that Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, was chosen as the site of the first manufacturing plant of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI).

I had recently moved to Tuscaloosa and after getting the house and family settled started to look for a job. Not knowing anyone in town I went to one of the temp agencies for help. I was out on an interview and returned home to find the message light blinking on the answering machine. I’ll never forget the words in that message. Those words changed the course of my life.

Donna, call me as soon as you get this message. Have I got the job for you!

The very beginnings

October 11, 1993. I walked into the first offices of what would become MBUSI. Back then we were simply “Project Rosewood” and the “AAV project”.  I was the only one in the office. I had a desk, phone and copier/fax on the second floor of the Tuscaloosa Airport Terminal. After two weeks the first Mercedes-Benz person came. It was Linda Paulmeno, the then Director of Communications for our company who was also on the site selection committee.

Donna McKee in the Northport Galleria office before the MBUSI plant was built (1994).

We changed offices and moved to the Northport Galleria. First in a small office while they were getting a larger one ready, then into the now third office space. It was while we were in the smaller office that I finally became a full time employee – March 7, 1994. It took so long as we still had no infrastructure of our own – payroll, benefits, etc. Everyone on board at that time was being paid from another Daimler entity. Finally, we became the company we are now – Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc.

The First All-Team Meeting MBUSI held in 1994 (Donna McKee second from right).

Improvisation: the rolling desk

The larger office quickly started filling up with people as we hired various positions. It wasn’t a large office and didn’t take long to fill almost beyond capacity. Fun fact – our Payroll manager didn’t have an assigned desk in the beginning so some of the employees made him a rolling desk from a box attached to a skateboard with a string he could pull around the office to find a free desk when he needed it. Promise I’m not making this up.

Then the Groundbreaking ceremony. And it rained. Another date, and it rained. It was postponed multiple times due to rain. Finally, under a large tent we made it happen.

Donna McKee (in the background) at a 1994 MBUSI Christmas Party.

Trailer City started coming together at the site. The trailers quickly started filling up as well and construction began on the plant. Eventually everyone moved into the various trailers and we were all in one place. Everything was dirt and gravel, and mud when it rained.

I ruined several pairs of shoes as did other women. There were covered walkways connecting the trailers together to help keep you dry. There was a bathroom Trailer – imagine a very large port-a-potty with multiple stalls. And the “cafeteria” which was a trailer with tables, chairs and vending machines.

From first glimpses to the Grand Opening

First milestone accomplished. Next – building cars. We got our first glimpses of the new Mercedes-Benz SUV – the M-Class. All bright and shiny. And white. All of them were white. A lot of white cars. We got really tired of White.

Donna McKee and MBUSI IT Team Members in 1997.

February 14, 1996. Finally, the day had arrived – Job 1. We had an awesome ceremony, various departments put on skits or sang songs. And finally, the Job 1 car came through the barrier driven by one of our Team members. It was truly a memorable Event.

Then the Grand Opening Ceremony – the event was celebrated with more fanfare and dazzle than I had seen in my life. Team members, executives, dignitaries – you name them and they were there. All to reveal our new Alabama built vehicle to the world. It came up out of the ground on a hydraulic lift like magic – lights, smoke, and music. The applause was deafening. And they said we couldn’t build a Mercedes in Alabama.

Donna McKee with a group rehearsing for the Job 1 celebration (February 1997).

Roll Tide!

The list could go on and on. All the milestones we’ve achieved – our plant, our vehicles and our team. The last 24 years have been a whirlwind of that same magic since the announcement in September 1993. It never ceases to amaze me how far we’ve come. I’ve seen it all from the dirt covered hills while clearing the site for the original plant to a second plant, new body shop and all the creativity, innovations and new electric vehicles coming our way in the near future. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Roll Tide!

Donna McKee and her co-workers and lunch partners in 1998.

She is a Team Member for 23 and a half years and the longest serving employee at MBUSI. Currently a Recruiter in the Human Resources Department.