LOS ANGELES - A couple of years ago, American Suzuki executives boldly projected the company would hit 100,000 U.S. sales in the fiscal year that ends March 31, 2001.
It seemed like an ambitious, but reasonable, goal for a company selling 30,000 units a year. It would mark a return to glory for a company that a decade ago dominated the small sport-utility scene in America, before allegations about vehicle safety dragged it down from its peak sales of more than 83,300 in 1987.
With new products on the way, plus increased marketing support, Suzuki was hoping Americans were ready to forget the past. But for the past two years, despite new products and increased spending, Suzuki's sales have remained in the 30,000 to 40,000 range. And that long-term goal has become rather more short-term.
Enter Rick Suzuki, grandson of the founder of Suzuki Motor Corp. and the new president of American Suzuki Motor Corp.
Suzuki, who took the helm of the company in December and who turned 51 last month, has plenty of experience in North America. He was a part of Suzuki's launch team in Canada from 1977-86, then was a key executive at the CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, from 1991-98.
SEEKING THE NEXT LEVEL
He feels he has what it takes to move Suzuki to the next level. 'In this business, it's a good asset if you know both the manufacturing and marketing sides, because it's a total effort,' Suzuki said. 'To me, the current level of our sales in America is not indicative of Suzuki's capabilities.'
Perhaps more important to the new president than hitting the 100,000-unit mark is a new mid-term goal: putting Suzuki at 1 percent market share within the next few years. But that would require sales of 150,000 units based on last year's total U.S. market, an even more audacious goal.
But Suzuki sees the keys to growth as coming from four areas:
1. Putting more product entries into new segments.
2. Spending more money to increase brand awareness.
3. Increasing and strengthening the dealer body.
4. Improving satisfaction levels for customers and dealers.
Suzuki declined to say what new segments the company plans to enter, although Suzuki showed a concept compact pickup last year. It also is rumored to be building a compact sport-utility larger than its new V-6 Grand Vitara.
That product blitz, however, will run into a fiscal ceiling of a limited marketing budget. Suzuki spent $30 million for the six-month launch of the Grand Vitara last year, an effort it will duplicate this year.
But even after that relatively small-potatoes spending, the company has no marketing funds left over for the base Vitara, the Esteem sedan or the Swift subcompact, Suzuki noted.
'My vision is to improve Suzuki's brand awareness and to become more customer-oriented. The budget per unit is a significant amount of dollars, but you also have to be realistic in your spending for advertising and incentives,' Suzuki said.
To more effectively spread its marketing reach, Suzuki will spend most of its marketing funds in areas near its top 100 dealers, which represent about 45 percent of sales.
MORE, BETTER DEALERS
To help move the metal, Suzuki wants more dealerships. The company has 310 points now, up from 283 two years ago. It wants 350 by next year, and the eventual goal is 400. It also wants quality representation, not dealers who use Suzuki as a training school for other franchises and sell vehicles only by accident.
Suzuki also wants customer service to extend not just from dealers, but from the factory as well. The company will train all U.S. employees with a focus on better responsiveness and efficiency.
Newer dealers seem to have bought in to the pitch. In the latest National Automobile Dealers Association dealer attitude survey, Suzuki trailed only Toyota as the Asian franchise thought most likely to increase in value.
Such an enthusiastic dealer is Dick Wendle, who took over a point in Spokane, Wash., in mid-1996. It had been selling 18 Suzukis a year. Now it sells 250.
'Suzuki has performed very well for me,' said Wendle, who duals the Suzuki point with a Ford store. 'They have a great management team that is aggressively going out to sign good dealers. The Grand Vitara is seeing a higher-end customer and is selling really well.'
Not everyone is convinced.
'In looking at their plan, neither 100,000 units or 1 percent share is a reasonable goal. I can't figure out the arithmetic that can make that happen,' said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, a consulting firm in Santa Ana, Calif.
But when asked again about how he will achieve the task before him, Suzuki simply states, 'I know that it's a hard goal, but I like challenges. My only concern is that we have not realized our potential.'