When Jan Thompson remembers the early days of her 20-year career in the car business, she sounds like a World War I survivor describing the trenches: It wasn't fun by any means, but there's a certain wistfulness in recalling the challenge. As the first woman field "salesman" in Chrysler Corp. history, her initial territory was inner-city Detroit. Crime was rampant, the product was shoddy, and the car dealers--well, you know about car dealers. "It was the sleaziest district in Detroit," she says with a shrug. Still, she got through it.
Thompson has been a woman playing a man's game for years. But as marketing vice-president for the Mazda Div. of Mazda Motor of America Inc.--and the highest-ranking woman in the heavily male bastion of auto sales--she's finally playing by her own rules. She has been a key to the once-dowdy carmaker's turnaround. And while most auto makers direct their marketing efforts at men, Thompson has unabashedly focused on women. "Women are now buying by default, because nobody is reaching out to them," she says.
Since Thompson arrived at Mazda four years ago, the company has reinvented itself. What used to be known as a seller of reliable cars that were cheaper than Toyotas and Hondas is now appealing to buyers who consider themselves outside the mainstream--and are willing to pay a bit more to prove it. Five revamped car lines, plus the racy Miata roadster introduced in 1989, helped Mazda post a scant 2% decline in passenger car sales last year, when the market generally plunged 12%. This year, Mazda car sales are up slightly, while the market overall is flat.
Thompson's secret has been to avoid the engine-racing, macho image portrayed by most U.S. car companies. Beginning with the softly nostalgic ads that ushered in the Miata, she hasn't been afraid to make a more personal appeal. If her ads are warm and fuzzy, however, Thompson most certainly is not. After two decades selling cars, she can sound like a grizzled veteran--and Mazda dealers love her ability to speak their often salty language. Thompson considers that an advantage: By learning the game from the inside-out, she can break the rules with more confidence.
A Motor City native, with an MBA from the University of Detroit, Thompson spent 12 years climbing the ranks at Chrysler to become distribution manager in Los Angeles. There, she jumped to Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., where she later joined a three-person team responsible for Lexus, Toyota's entry into the luxury-car business. Thompson wrote the Lexus marketing plan, selected the logo, chose the ad agency--but left a year before the cars were launched.
SISTERHOOD SELLS. The lure of Mazda, it turned out, was just too great. In 1988, the Japanese parent merged its three U.S. distributors into a single sales unit. As advertising vice-president, Thompson's tough decisions came fast. She made Foote, Cone & Belding Communications Inc. sweep clean its Santa Ana (Calif.) office. She got rid of the vague "the Mazda Way" campaign and James Garner, its longtime spokesman. Her touch was apparent the next year with the spectacular Miata debut. Within months, all Mazda ads had a new theme: "It just feels right." Says market researcher J. Jesse Snyder of AutoFacts Inc.: "Jan Thompson has really been the visionary at Mazda."
Thompson insists she has never felt out of place during her career. Playing plenty of golf and schmoozing, she got along fine, although she always knew when to go home: "You have to know when to let boys be boys." But she always felt that carmakers were wrong in the assumption that focusing on women buyers might tarnish their brand images. So, as she eventually picked up all of Mazda's marketing duties, women customers became her special target.
Besides the ads, she pumped up sponsorship of such high-profile women's events as the Mazda LPGA Championship in golf and the Mazda Tennis Classic in women's tennis. Next came the Mazda Golf Clinics for Executive Women, which teach golf as a business networking tool--while building goodwill among affluent women.
Thompson attends all the clinics, which impressed one participant, Denise Desautels, director of brokerage sales for a franchisee of New England Mutual Life Insurance Co. Desautels, who drives a Saab, is now thinking about buying a Mazda. "People do business with people they feel comfortable with," she says. That's something for the boys in Detroit to think about.