TOKYO - Mark Fields ticked off a list of what Mazda Motor Corp. needs: cost cutting to counter a strong Japanese yen and still-high debt levels, a more efficient organization, a more focused product lineup, better distribution networks worldwide and an enhanced brand identity.
Last month, as Mazda's senior managing director for sales, marketing and customer service, Fields spent all of his time working on the last two issues. But now, Fields must worry about everything. On Dec. 15, he became Mazda's third new president in three years as James Miller stepped down, citing health reasons.
It is an abrupt shift even for Fields, 38, a fast-track marketing whiz who just five years ago was program manager for the Ford Aerostar.
'If someone would have told me 15 months ago that I'd either be president of Mazda or the first man on Mars, I probably would have said I'd be the first man on Mars,' Fields quipped at a breakfast meeting here Friday, Dec. 17.
Fields is the youngest president of a Japanese carmaker ever. He also represents an aberration in an industry where presidents typically come from an engineering or manufacturing background, with some finance executives sent in from lead banks to turn around failing concerns.
He honed his business skills at Ford Argentina SA when that unit was rebuilding after the dissolution of Autolatina, the Ford-Volkswagen joint venture in Brazil and Argentina.
At Mazda, Fields most recently has worked with the product-development staff to ensure that new models fit the Mazda brand personality of 'stylish, insightful and spirited.'
His other major initiative has been the consolidation of Mazda's distribution network in Japan. Under the One Operation program, he merged back-office functions of multiple Mazda-owned or affiliated dealerships in a single prefecture. He also cut the number of outlets in Japan by 20 percent over the past 18 months.
The results so far are encouraging. Year to date through November, Mazda-controlled dealerships have improved their profits by about ¥1.5 billion, or $14 million at current exchange rates, Fields said.
Already, he is turning his attention to Mazda's broader finances. Mazda, more dependent than any other Japanese carmaker on exports, is dangerously exposed to currency swings. This fiscal year, Mazda predicts the yen's strength will cut profits by ¥8 billion, or about $76 million at current exchange rates. And the yen rate 'is not going to get better,' he said.
Building more cars abroad might reduce the currency exposure, but that's unlikely anytime soon, he said. 'We have brick and mortar that's already sucking down fixed costs here in Japan,' and Mazda needs to maximize its capacity utilization here before adding capacity overseas, he said.
Some 20 teams in the company are searching for ways to cut costs. Their recommendations have ranged from charging an extra 10 cents for a cup of coffee in staff rooms to using cheaper copier paper, to the sale and lease-back of buildings.
Those all may be necessary if Mazda is to shrug off the yen's rise and still meet its long-term goal of cutting its debt-to-equity ratio to 50 percent.
Said Fields: 'I'd rather spend our money on future products than on paying debt.'