Just four months into his job as head of Ford of Mexico, Jose Manuel Machado has the world at his fingertips.
He needs a small car to sell. He's counting on Europe's Ka or the Fiesta. Or both. He wants better salesmen at Ford dealerships. So he is transferring lessons from Ford of Spain, where competitive forces have already toughened dealers.
The formula for bigger profits and market share? Repeat the kind of gains he made in his last job, leading Ford in Colombia and Venezuela.
New products. New ideas. New people. Mexico, under leaders like Machado, is going global - and this time it really means it. Transplanted leaders are spicing up the market with strategies proven abroad. Savvy locals are scanning the world for blueprints on change.
Sure, Mexico has had links to the rest of the world before. U.S. Big 3 executives have long used Mexico as a stepping stone to bigger posts.
But that was when Mexico was an automotive island. Not too long ago, each automaker was limited to selling just one car line. Local rules closed the door to imports and newcomers. Even as the rules loosened, Volkswagen and Nissan sold the small cars; the Big 3 sold the bigger cars. So the same five players shared the pie. Always full of tomorrow's promise. Often soured by crisis.
Now, with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the globalization of the industry, Mexico is emerging from its latest economic collapse as part of the automotive mainland.
Chrysler, under former U.S. sales boss Ted Cunningham, is using Mexico as a prototype for its fledgling international presence. Beyond Spaniard Machado, Ford has three Americans in its executive suite. Volkswagen's Bernd Leissner is overseeing a $500 million investment that will produce, among other cars, a new Beetle for the world next year. In the meantime, he hopes to bounce from fifth to first in the market.
That's not out of the question. General Motors used to be the industry's doormat. Now, under a sunny Gary Cowger, GM leads the Mexican market for the first time ever.
Cowger's ambition? To be the Lexus of Mexico. His signature is a 24-hour roadside assistance program that appeals to a population nervous about crime. He's drawing from lessons learned about customer satisfaction at Cadillac, where his manufacturing team won the Malcolm Baldrige quality award.
At BMW Mexico, Franz Baumgartner - driving nut, motorcycle lover - frets about crime, too. If you drive a new car in Mexico, he says, you might as well wear a badge that shouts: I have money.
If you drive a BMW, your badge says you have lots of money. BMW uses its kit-assembly plant in Lerma to produce armored 3-series cars. The company also offers lessons on driving security. They teach how to avoid kidnappers, not potholes.
Baumgartner, an Austrian, traces the program to clinics on performance driving that BMW offers in Germany. A purist might wince at how it has been adapted for Mexico. 'You have to adjust yourself to the times you live in,' Baumgartner says.
Meanwhile, at BMW's Land Rover unit, Englishman Roger Ball is trying to create a Mexican appetite for sport-utilities. He thought it would be easier. After all, he helped bring Land Rover to Canada and the United States. But Mexico has no culture for off-road driving. So Ball hopes to strike a chord with Mexico's elite by pitching Land Rover's mastery of potholes.
Fausto Cuevas, the head of the Mexican industry association, wants to get Mexico's older cars - and they are lots of them - off the road. That would clear the way for new ones with catalytic converters. A potential model: California's cash-for-clunkers program.
Before long, more U.S. retailing customs will be transplanted to Mexico, too. Dealers have already begun to pay attention to the back shop and used cars. Sales drops of 70 percent have a way of forcing change. Others, like dualed dealerships, won't be far behind.
The changes won't come without pain. Suppliers have been used to swimming in a lagoon, protected by local content rules and local production requirements. They have now been cast into the open sea. Old lifelines have vanished. Ford, for example, now handles Mexico purchasing from Dearborn. One of BMW's missions is to make Mexican suppliers competitive internationally.
It would be a mistake, of course, to adopt ideas from abroad without tailoring them to the local culture. Ford's Machado confesses that he thought his success at Ford of Spain would easily translate to Colombia and Venezuela. But it didn't; he realized that he first had to know the political forces, or the social forces, or the market.
When he arrived in Mexico, a much bigger post, he left the macho attitude behind. 'I know,' he says, 'that I don't know enough.'