N. Charleston Mercedes plant gets checkup New Daimler AG boss stops by for progress report, speaks at expo

North Charleston is home to the expanding Mercedes-Benz Vans plant, where the German automaker's Sprinter is produced for North American customers.

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Newly in charge of the Mercedes-Benz Vans factory in North Charleston, Michael Balke has had to keep tabs on its progress mostly from afar these past few months.

That all changes in September when the Daimler AG executive moves to the Lowcountry to oversee the plant’s $500 million transformation to a full-fledged manufacturing site for the company’s popular, box-style Sprinter vans.

“A lot of engineering work for our expansion is currently being done in Germany,” said Balke, who arrived at Charleston International earlier this week for a quick check on the expansion and then a speech Thursday at North Charleston’s annual business expo.

Balke, now living in Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG’s home town of Stuttgart, takes over the North Charleston plant from Marco Wirtz, who moved back to Germany for a management position in the Mercedes-Benz Vans plant there. Balke, a 23-year Daimler employee, most recently was director of the E-Class vehicle production in Sindelfingen, Germany.

Mercedes-Benz Vans was the presenting sponsor at the business expo, and recruiters at the automaker’s booth were busy gathering business cards and telephone numbers from prospective employees during a two-hour job fair.

“We are in the planning stages now, so we need engineers and people to set up the systems that will operate this facility later on,” Balke said.

The automaker site plans to hire more than 1,300 workers for the Palmetto Commerce Park factory by the time full production begins in 2018. The hiring of production employees will start in 2017, “early enough for some intensive training,” he said.

Balke said the quality of Charleston area workers was a key reason Daimler decided to expand the North Charleston site.

“To build a building where we put cars together or paint them, that’s not a big deal,” he said. “The big deal is to have the right employees involved. They make the difference.”

Balke also cited South Carolina’s “very supportive environment for business and very friendly atmosphere” for the company’s decision.

Mercedes-Benz currently builds its Sprinter vans in Germany then disassembles them for shipment to the United States, where they are reassembled at the North Charleston site. The complicated process is a way to get around a Cold War-era tariff that makes the import of completed light trucks, like the vans, too costly. However, the Sprinter has become so popular in North America that Mercedes-Benz Vans decided to make the vehicles from scratch in North Charleston rather than continue bringing them from overseas.

“We have seen that the North American market is a very strong one,” Balke said. “Last year we had double-digit growth, and we had a very strong first quarter in 2016. That makes us confident that we should produce cars in this market.”

Of the record 194,200 Sprinters sold worldwide last year, 28,600 were delivered in the United States — an 11 percent increase over 2015 figures.

In addition to expansion of the expanded assembly facility, Mercedes-Benz Vans will build a paint shop and body shop at the North Charleston site. Further expansions could follow depending on market conditions, according to a permit application the company filed with the Army Corps of Engineers’ office in Charleston.

“The soil is prepared, we know how the building will look — the next step is to put the concrete in the ground,” Balke said of the expansion’s progress.

The Mercedes-Benz Vans expansion is one of two vehicle manufacturing plants under construction in the Charleston region. Volvo also is building a $500 million production facility near Ridgeville in Berkeley County, where it will make a redesigned S60 sedan beginning in 2018.

The Sprinter vans are used by a variety of major companies for transport and delivery, including FedEx and many major resorts and hotels.

In addition to the Sprinter, Mercedes-Benz plans to assemble the midsize Metris van in North Charleston.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550.