TOKYO - Barely two weeks on the job, the new president of Ford Motor Co. (Japan) Ltd. is pulling the corporate-strategy equivalent of a hand-brake turn.
For seven years, former president Konen Suzuki drummed home a single message: Give me more dealers, and I'll sell more cars in Japan. Ford therefore took a hard-line stance in U.S.-Japan automotive talks on the issue of access to dealers in Japan.
No more. Eiji Iwakuni, a 55-year-old former Honda Motor Co. executive who succeeded Suzuki on April 1, says Ford needs better product in Japan, not more dealers who can't sell inadequate product.
Because of fundamental shifts in auto retailing, Iwakuni said in an interview last week, 'You no longer need so many dealers all over Japan.'
Instead, he said, the key to Ford's success in Japan will be vehicles that meet the specific needs of Japanese consumers. While he expects good sales for the Ford Mustang and just-unveiled 2000 Lincoln LS6/LS8, he also knows he will have to be willing to refuse some American models Ford may ask him to sell.
'THE COURAGE TO SAY NO'
'The courage to say no will save Ford Japan in the future. And I believe the head office is willing to accept my no,' he said.
Indeed, he pointed to his appointment as president, despite his inability to speak English, as proof of Ford's commitment to the Japanese market.
'That shows that they put less weight on communications ability than on actual business operations. They recognize the need for them to listen to customers, instead of internal company people,' he said.
In Iwakuni's view, Japanese dealers have had five major areas of responsibility. And all five are changing:
Order taking. But that can now be done more efficiently on the Internet.
Delivery of the new vehicle. But that task can just as easily be handled by one of the country's ubiquitous commercial delivery services.
Registration of vehicles, an especially time-consuming process in Japan that dealers handle for their customers. But pending deregulation will simplify the process to the point where it can be done at a local 7-Eleven store, he predicted.
Service. He contends the need for dealers to provide extensive service is declining because of ever-improving quality. Beyond that consideration, he added, Ford cars could be serviced at Mazda Motor Corp.'s approximately 3,000 outlets across Japan.
Brand building, a role he likened to being 'battle-front soldiers' for the carmakers. But nowadays, some dealers do more to drag down the carmaker's image than boost it, he said.
Iwakuni knows his subject. He once headed Honda's second-biggest dealer network in Japan, and, immediately prior to joining Ford, had overseen a three-year consolidation on Honda's dealership network in Japan.
Now he is looking hard at the way Ford sells cars in Japan.
While he does not necessarily expect to slash Ford Japan's network of 300 sales outlets, he said, he also thinks there should be fewer full-service outlets. Rather, he said, one large outlet could be surrounded in a sales territory by several satellite outlets, the way a major university medical center is surrounded by offices of individual doctors.