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Old 09-16-2003, 08:47   #1 (permalink)
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Asia:New Mazda head upbeat as he faces long to-do list

Automotive News
Reuters / September 16, 2003

TOKYO (Reuters) -- Hisakazu Imaki, the new head of Mazda Motor Corp., can't wait to get to work.

Since taking the helm at Japan's fifth-largest car maker late last month after his predecessor's sudden departure, Imaki complains he hasn't spent a single day at his office, having just returned from the international auto show in Frankfurt.

His to-do list? Figure out ways to boost output capacity in China, improve Mazda's sales network in the United States, and draw up future product plans, to name just a few.

While recognizing the company's shortcomings, the no-nonsense, 38-year veteran of Mazda, owned one-third by Ford Motor Co., is optimistic.

"Our product-led growth strategy is clearly working. The few models that we've launched in the past year have been very successful," Imaki told a small group of reporters on Tuesday, adding that would allow Mazda to work on its weak points.

One weak point, he says, is its performance in the United States, where Japanese car makers earn most of their money.

Veering far from a targeted 8.4 percent rise, Mazda's U.S. sales so far this year are down 6.4 percent from year-ago levels, despite its use of buyer incentives averaging $2,000 per car.

Imaki said sales should get a boost later this year from the launch of the new Mazda3 sedan and two more versions of the Mazda6. But with the price war intensifying, analysts have said reaching targeted sales of 280,000 units while keeping incentives at bay could be difficult.

"I don't know whether we will have to revise our U.S. sales projections, but I do know that we need to improve our sales network," Imaki said, noting that less than a fifth of Mazda's dealers in the United States sell Mazda cars exclusively.

He added that Mazda may extend its product lineup to include sport utility vehicles, a growing and profitable segment in the United States.

SO FAR, SO GOOD

The U.S. market is more the exception than the rule, however.

Despite tough global competition, cost cuts and healthy sales mainly in Europe helped Mazda's operating profit jump 77 percent to 50.66 billion yen ($430 million) in the year ended in March, and it expects a further rise this business year to the highest level in a decade.

In the shrinking European market, Mazda's sales are still growing at break-neck speed, and sales in Japan are up 10 percent this year, against a projected 7.4 percent rise.

And demand for its cars in the booming Chinese market have far surpassed expectations thanks to the popularity of the Mazda6, prompting Imaki to raise the sales target for this year to 70,000 units from 45,000. Last year, it sold 22,000 cars there.

"We reached our full-year target (for China) by the end of August," Imaki said. "The most pressing issue now is to figure out a way to boost output capacity, and we're discussing how to do this right now with Ford."

Mazda currently outsources production to local partner FAW Car Co., a unit of China's largest auto maker, First Automotive Works, sending knock-down kits from Japan. While Imaki declined to disclose the nature of its talks with Ford, he added that to raise output, Mazda "can't continue to rely on knock-downs."

Mazda is still a small player in China, accounting for just two percent of the passenger car market last year. Bigger domestic rivals like Honda <7267.T>, Toyota <7203.T> and Nissan <7201.T> all have joint ventures with local partners, with output capacity in six digits.

MORALE BOOSTER

Imaki, formerly an executive vice president who spent years running Mazda's engineering and manufacturing divisions, has yet to make any real contributions as Mazda's president, but his appointment has already boosted morale among the rank and file.

The 60-year-old is Mazda's first Japanese CEO since Ford took a controlling stake in 1996, and the first insider to head the firm in over a decade.

Imaki himself plays down the relevance of nationality, but said he received countless emails from factory workers in Hiroshima, where Mazda has its headquarters, congratulating him on the new post.

If loyalty is any measure of whether his posting is well-deserved, Imaki has few rivals.

When he joined 38 years ago, Mazda was still called Toyo Kogyo Co., an offshoot of a cork maker, and ranked third among Japanese car makers. Imaki was also there when Mazda first started shipping cars to the United States in 1970, and watched as a domestic bank bailed out his employer some years later.

"I've never really given much thought about where our past presidents were from, but I guess it matters to most people," he said.
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