Zoom-zoom-zoom. That's the catchy advertising slogan for Japan's Mazda Motor. It's also an apt description for the way people move in and out of the company's top job. Controlling shareholder Ford Motor has installed no fewer than four presidents in the past six years, quickly moving Ford veterans up -- and, in some cases, out.
The most recent shakeup came on Apr. 19 with the announcement that Lewis Booth, who until recently headed Ford's South Africa business and in March was appointed senior adviser to Mazda, would take over as president in June. Booth will replace Mark Fields, who's being promoted to head Ford's London-based luxury division after having restored Mazda to profitability.
Booth, who admits to being a novice when it comes to Mazda, takes the wheel ahead of a major product roll-out and at the midpoint of an ambitious five-year restructuring effort, dubbed the Millennium Plan. That makeover was set in motion by Fields a year after he was named president, at the age of 39, in 1999. Among other things, the plan called for Mazda to cut 1,800 jobs, reduce production capacity in Japan by 25%, shift some production to Europe, and reduce supply costs.
The two men's backgrounds couldn't be more different. The soft-spoken, British-born Booth is an engineer by training. The outgoing Fields is a marketing guru with a Harvard University MBA. They spoke about the transition with BusinessWeek Tokyo Correspondent Chester Dawson in their first -- and only -- joint interview. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: How confident are you that Mazda is on track for sustainable profit growth after moving in and out of profitability in the 1990s?
Booth: Everything I've seen so far makes me feel very positive about the overall future for Mazda, not just the financial outlook. Obviously, we're only 18 months or so into implementing the Millennium Plan. We have a huge amount of work ahead of us. But I think the company has momentum.
Q: How much is riding on the success of the new Mazda 6 [dubbed the Atenza in Japan] midsize sedan and the subcompact Mazda Demio [to be sold in Europe and Japan]?
Booth: This business is all about product. We're into the period of the Millennium Plan where we anticipate growth [coming] on the back of new products...so these two are very important for us.
Q: What will be Mark Fields's legacy as CEO at Mazda?
Fields: What I'd like to be known for is leaving the organization a bit more capable than [it was] when I came. Clearly, my plan was to stay here a bit longer, although I've been here for about four years. With my management team, we've been able to deliver some very good results in a period in which we've gone through some tough restructuring.
When we did our first [senior management training] 2-1/2 years ago, you could hear a pin drop. Now, people are really having dialogues, debating issues, asking questions about the business, not necessarily their own particular function.
The low point, to be quite honest, was when we delayed the announcement of our financial results for about one week [in May, 2000]. It was for a variety of reasons, and at the time I got some advice that this was the right thing to do. It turned out to be the wrong thing to do. It was about four or five months after I was named president, and there was all this speculation, "Who is this young guy, and does he have the gumption to run a big company?"
Q: Why did Ford choose someone [who had only five weeks' experience] with Mazda to run it?
Booth: It's obviously a disadvantage to have such a short launch curve. But the important thing at Mazda is that it isn't just the president who's responsible for Mazda's business -- it's the whole senior [management] team. We have a strong team in place that can help me with implementing the [Millennium] Plan.
I bring a wide experience both geographically and functionally to the business. I've been heavily associated with product programs for most of my career at Ford, but I have worked in manufacturing, and my training is in both engineering and finance. In terms of specific attributes I bring to the Mazda business, I have experience and strengths in planning the future, and I also have a fairly relentless approach to implementing plans.
Q: What's an example of one of your recent management achievements as head of Ford's business in South Africa?
Booth: In the period I was in South Africa, we competed for and won a major [four-cylinder] engine-export program [to Europe, Mexico, and India], which is now being implemented. It took our engine plant capacity from about 50,000 units a year to about 250,000 units a year, which is a huge increase.
Q: Why has Ford installed four of its executives to short-term stints as Mazda president in the past six years?
Booth: I don't think it says anything adverse about Ford's commitment to Mazda. Mark's appointment [as Mazda president] and his subsequent appointment to an even more senior position in the company implies Ford's commitment to put good people into Mazda. Sometimes opportunities come up for those people a bit earlier than expected. This has happened a little bit earlier than either of us had expected.
Fields: Ford's commitment to Mazda is stronger than ever, as was evidenced by our steadfast execution of the Millennium Plan and our unique turf under the Ford umbrella. I would say that with the transition period we'll have over the next two months, combined with the consistency at least in my presence at Mazda over the past four years [first as marketing chief and then president], we expect a very smooth transition.
Q: What can a former Mazda president bring to improve the luxury-brand-oriented Premier Auto Group (PAG) at Ford?
Fields: The ability to listen well, develop teams, a strong dedication to brand and product marketing, and delivering results. I've also learned -- very importantly -- to balance deep listening with a sense of urgency. And that's something I did not have before I came to Mazda.
I take more time up-front to understand the issues, whereas before [Mazda] I may have shortchanged that. [At PAG], I just want to provide good leadership and good results, and beyond that I can't really comment because I still have to get up that learning curve.
The PAG role was something I looked at and said, "Boy, somewhere down the road...." And now that I have the opportunity, I jumped at it.
Q: How can Mazda compete against bigger, more profitable rivals such as Honda, Toyota, and a revitalized Nissan, especially as the overall demand for cars in Japan shrinks?
Fields: Being Mazda and being simple. Period. Not being all things to all people: Sticking to our roots. We've defined our brand -- exciting cars that have a practical flair to them -- on attitudes and values, not demographics.
If you look at the market around the world, it's fragmenting. People want vehicles to be more individualistic, to reflect their own personality. And now with manufacturing techniques the way they are, we can do that, as opposed to just marketing to the masses.