MAZDA PRESIDENT Mark Fields gets one of the highest profile jobs in the car business today (July 1).
As the new head of Ford's Premier Automotive Group he will be responsible for Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin.
Fields, 41, says he's ready for the glare of publicity sure to follow. He learned a lot in Japan about what it's like to be famous.
Fields will replace Wolfgang Reitzle, the flamboyant former BMW executive who was Premier's first boss. Reitzle left Ford in April to join German industrial company Linde.
Fields led an earnings turnaround at Mazda, where he has been chief executive since December 1999. He joined Mazda in August 1998 as senior advisor.
Previously, Fields was managing director of Ford Argentina. He joined Ford Motor Co. in 1989 after working in marketing and sales at IBM.
He was interviewed by staff reporter Dorothée Ostle.
What will be your biggest challenge in the new job?
I will manage a portfolio of companies, each with its own distinct culture, rather than just one company as I've done these last few years. I will have to develop new skills that allow me to effectively manage and lead a multitude of companies and individuals.
How are you preparing?
Similar to how I approached my assignments at Mazda and in Argentina. It is important to understand the past and present of any brand before you can have an opinion about the future.
First off, I plan to talk to many people associated with the brands, past and present, and get as many opinions as possible. I want to understand the true strength of the brands and the opportunities that may lie ahead.
Secondly, I plan to visit the brands' headquarters and plants as soon as possible to meet the people behind the products.
Thirdly, I plan to spend a lot of time driving the products.
Finally, I will spend time with customers or at venues where I can interact and observe customers.
With your new job you will automatically become a public person in the European society. How will you handle that?
I do not necessarily aspire to it nor get excited about the prospect of being a media personality. I am a very private person. I like to keep to myself and go about my personal and business life in this manner. That being said, I understand that unlike most industries, public relations and media presence play a huge role in the automotive industry. To a certain degree I enjoy it, but I also recognize that I am representing much more than just myself, I am representing my organization.
You will get a lot of attention in Europe.
I am very aware that Europe in particular is very focused on public image, personality and lifestyle. I am happy to respond to this if it adds value to my role and the company.
In Japan, for example, being a foreign president added an element of media interest. Although the personalities of auto business leaders are important, they should not overshadow the companies or the brands themselves. Cults of personality can be fleeting, while brands and organizations are not.
Do you believe that top managers in the auto industry can work for any brand?
Of course, I'm very loyal to Ford Motor Co., but I never say never. But the likelihood is very small that I would work for brands other than those within Ford. At the end of the day, as an individual, it's not so much the brand but the challenge that it poses for you. And I'm the type of person who has always taken jobs that posed a challenge, not what I would call the sexy jobs.
What is the most important ability a car manager needs these days?
Very good appreciation for the customer, very good business acumen in terms of understanding the levers of profit, and a very keen sense of brand - why it is important, how you build it, how you nurture it. And above all it is providing very clear direction to the organization, motivating them to change and produce results.
Your wife was a media sales representative before she gave up her job to care for your children. What is your attitude about professional women, especially in the car industry?
My wife is full of energy and she had no problem channeling this energy into making a caring and loving environment for our family. At some point, she will return to work or may pursue more education. I feel very strongly about equal opportunity for women in business, and especially in the car industry. Our work force and management teams must reflect our customer base.
At Mazda, we have implemented a number of "female friendly" policies, including half-day vacations, flexible working hours and on-site child-care centers. We are recognized in Japan as one of the leading-edge companies in this regard.
I was shocked when I first came to Japan and saw that most women in the company were relegated to menial administrative tasks. At Mazda we now have policies and a strategy to change this in the future.