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Monday, March 16, 1998

Mazda leader looking to revitalize dealerships, sales


Staff writer

FUCHU, Hiroshima Pref. -- Since he became president of Japan's fifth-largest automaker last November, James Miller has been busy with visits to Mazda Motor Corp. dealerships.

"I enjoy opportunities to spend time with them ... We need to rebuild the strength of our dealers' and suppliers' organizations. I feel very strongly about that," Miller told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

Unlike his predecessors, including Henry Wallace, a financial affairs expert, Yoshihiro Wada, who came from Mazda's main bank, Sumitomo Bank, and others who came from engineering backgrounds, Miller is the first president of Mazda with strong experience in sales operations.

Thanks to improved sales, active cost-cutting efforts and some benefit from the exchange rate, Mazda, which has been suffering from operating losses since the 1994 business year, expects to post operating profits for the current business year, which ends March 31.

Mazda employees seem to welcome the long overdue expertise in sales that Miller offers. While Wallace's priority was to get the company's financial status back on track, Miller has placed the focus on building strong dealer networks and expanding sales.

"I have visited probably 2,500 dealers around the world in 55 or 60 countries. I have never seen a manufacturer sustain success without a strong dealer organization," Miller said. "Any success is short-lived if the dealer organization is weak."

Miller, a U.S. citizen and former Ford Motor Co. executive, is the second non-Japanese in a row to serve as president of Mazda since Ford increased its stake in the Hiroshima-based automaker to 33.4 percent in 1996.

The most obvious difficulty he faces now is the language barrier, but other than that, he said coming to Japan was an easy transition because he already knew many people in the company and in Hiroshima through his business with Mazda over the past years.

Miller lived in Taiwan when he was a high school student because his father worked there as a university professor. He recalled moving to Taiwan when he was 15. "As we arrived in Taiwan, my father said to me, you'll see many things in Taiwan that are quite different from what you are accustomed to: culture, practice and habits, and you should always remember that different is not bad," he said. "Different is different, and you need to respect that."

Commenting on the severe environment surrounding the auto industry, Miller seems confident about Mazda's business performance this year.

While other automakers forecast growth in the auto market in Japan this year, Mazda estimates domestic demand will drop 4.5 percent from 1997 to 6.42 million units because of the underlying weakness in the economy.

However, the company has set a goal of increasing its sales by 6.8 percent to 360,000 units this year. Miller said this goal can be achieved after taking into account the full-year impact of the Capella, including a station wagon, that debuted last year, and new products that have been introduced or will be introduced this year, including the fully remodeled Roadster and Familia.

As for manufacturing operations, Miller said sharing platforms -- the base section of vehicles -- with Ford will lead to greater efficiency. "When the two companies share a common platform, it means that those companies don't independently go through the cost of developing a separate platform. So there are huge efficiencies," he said.

According to Miller, the impact of Japan's economic slowdown on the firm's business is far greater than that of Asia's economic turmoil, because the volume and share of the Asian markets are relatively small compared with those in North America and Europe. But he admitted that Mazda's new plant in Thailand, which is scheduled to begin operating this summer, will have to go through some adjustment of production volume.

On the issue of creating environmentally friendly vehicles, he said Mazda has not made a massive investment that wouldn't yield returns for 10 or 20 years, but instead has focused on dramatically improving power-trains in terms of fuel economy and emissions reduction. For example, this year, Mazda plans to mount a new direct fuel injection diesel engine on the Capella model.



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The Japan Times

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