Joe Shaker, president of Wellesley Mazda in Wellesley, Mass., began his one-year term as chairman of the Mazda Dealer Advisory Council on Jan. 1.
Jan. 1 also was the day that Mazda North American Operations kicked off its Mazda3 campaign, "Own the Day," with saturation advertising on TV, billboards, in print and elsewhere.
Shaker says salespeople and customers alike are excited about the 2004 Mazda3, which began arriving in dealerships in November.
Mazda is "improving year over year," he says, and new products are pushing that improvement. The past year or so has been good for new products, Shaker says. Dealers also got the Mazda6, RX-8 and the new MazdaSpeed Protege.
So what does Shaker want for 2004?
More product. He's especially eager for the 2004 MazdaSpeed MX-5 Miata, coming this spring. A large SUV tops his wish list.
And, of course, more sales. Mazda's 2003 U.S. sales (258,865) were nearly flat when compared with those of 2002 (258,213).
Shaker spoke with Staff Reporter Patricia C. Foley.
How was the past year for Mazda?
It was good compared with where we were the year before with the product, with the 626 and the Millenia going away. We got the Mazda6 and the RX-8 and the MazdaSpeed. Mazda started coming out with new products and aggressive ideas, and it made working with the product a lot more fun.
What are the prospects for 2004 for the industry?
I think interest rates are going to be low, the stock market is going to be up a bit, and I think unemployment numbers are going to improve. I agree with a lot of analysts that predict mid to high 16 millions for the yearly run rate on cars.
How about for Mazda?
I think Mazda is improving year over year, and they're being patient about it. So I think it's going to be a better year than '03 because we are getting even more product. I think what really pushed Mazda in 2003, which was new product, is exactly what will push Mazda further in'04.
What is the hot product for Mazda?
My people at the store are real excited about the Mazda3 mainly because they see Mazda's ability to deliver more for less, and they see it as a high-volume car. The customer reaction has been very exciting as well.
Is there a weak link?
Everybody knows what Mazda needs. We need a large SUV and a better presence in the truck segment.
How's the RX-8 launch going? That launched in July, right?
Yeah. I'm in the Northeast, and we actually started getting cars in July, and we had an incredible run with the car all through our warm season. As it got cold, sales backed off in my specific market.
The customer reaction to the car has been fantastic. We have a lot of floor traffic on the car with buyers that have spring or summer intentions to purchase the vehicle. No one likes to buy a sports car in the winter.
What sort of staying power does the RX-8 have?
Because of the size of the rotary engine, the interior room is a lot larger than people expect. The combination of the freestyle doors and the roominess of the car have made a lot of people realize it's not just a two-door sports car. It has a lot more to offer.
Did you have a lot of returns from buyers after the overstated horsepower figures early on?
I don't know the numbers on how many cars were returned. The reaction from the dealership employees and customers was that Mazda really stepped up.
Because they offered to buy them?
Yeah. They offered to buy the cars back. I have a feeling there were people that turned the cars back in because they had put a lot of mileage on their cars and just wanted another one.
But everybody looked at that as such a strong statement that Mazda was customer-focused.
What new products are on the way?
Well, we got the Mazda3. It started landing in the U.S. in November - the Mazda3 sedan and the Mazda3 five-door. We'll have a 2005 Tribute, which is basically the Tribute with a facelift.
In March, we'll have the MazdaSpeed Miata.
I think the MazdaSpeed franchise - that's like Ford's SVT - is going to be really important with the Miata because of the amount of enthusiasts they've captured over the years.
It's going to come with a turbo, and it's not just a special edition. You know, getting a turbocharger and 17-inch wheels right from the factory is a big deal for that type of coltish buyer. The Mazda Miata has such a following of people, it's incredible.
And then March '04 we'll have the Mazda6 five-door. And then we'll have, in April, the Mazda6 wagon.
Does it upset you that Mazda keeps launching things in December - the MPV, then the Mazda6 and now the Mazda3?
Let me tell you, a product is what makes a launch, not the time that you launch it.
This business is always about product, product, product.
With the Mazda3, they may launch the car on Jan. 1, but we don't really have any large inventories of the car until our best months, which are in the spring. So a launch is to build awareness. And as long as they advertise - Mazda strongly advertises the car to sell the vehicle at the times when our customers are out buying.
It doesn't make any sense for me to have five Mazda3s in stock in March and then launch the car in March because then I have nothing to sell.
Mazda6 sales are coming around. What sort of incentives have been necessary to move it against the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry?
It's an incredibly competitive market, and incentives have helped us advertise the car at really strong price points.
What's the role of your dealer council?
The role of the dealer council is to communicate to Mazda issues and concerns of the dealer body. Our other role is to help Mazda with ideas and retail experience to help sell more cars and make more money.
What is the top priority of the dealer council in 2004?
Our top priorities are to improve sales and profitability and try to make the factory programs - any programs that the factory does in conjunction with the dealers - very simple so that we can focus on car sales.
How involved is the dealer council in manufacturer-driven programs and decisions that affect dealers?
Mazda is great to work with because although it's a big company, it's a small company.
They can turn on a dime, and they work very well with the council. There's not a big hierarchy or a lot of red tape. Mazda gets us involved at the inception of a lot of their programs so they can get our retail insight and perspective before they come out with the program.
How effective is your dealer council?
How is Jim O'Sullivan as CEO of Mazda North American Operations compared with Charlie Hughes (whom O'Sullivan replaced April 1)?
I came in at the end of Charlie's tenure so I didn't have a chance to really get to know Charlie.
Jim O'Sullivan is a really good guy. Jim is very retailer-oriented. I always tell him he graduated from the university of common sense.
He's an incredible listener. The common denominator of every question he has is selling more cars.
What help do Mazda dealers want from the factory?
More new cars that we can sell in volume.
How satisfied are dealers with Mazda? Are they more or less satisfied than before?
From the information I've read, the trend is positive, but product and profitability are the ultimate driver to keep that moving up.
Were Mazda dealers profitable in 2003?
My understanding is that profits were flat, but exclusives were up a bit in 2003.
How much input do you have into this factory advertising?
Like all other issues, Mazda invites us in to be part of the process. We do have input right at the beginning.
Are you sick of "zoom-zoom"?
Are BMW dealers sick of the "ultimate driving machine"? You can take that as a no.
How is the MazdaSpeed subfranchise doing?
The big focus is on the MazdaSpeed Miata, which will be sold in limited numbers to an incredibly large and affluent enthusiast crowd.
It's pretty exciting because we have a manufacturer doing new things to a limited number of cars - jazzing or sporting up vehicles that would normally be average cars in America.
How many dealers have signed up for the new dealership plan?
I think I've been told that three or four have been completed - I've actually been to one - and 30 are in the process.
Has the new Mazda test-drive program made a difference in sales?
The test drive has been a real big deal for my dealership.
We realize we have great cars, but we don't have the recognition in the market.
We need to test drive. Once we get on the consideration list, when we test drive a Mazda the customer understands more about what Mazdas are about. Standardizing that process has made a big difference.