Last year was a rough one for Mitsubishi.
Sales tumbled, despite a 0-0-0 incentives program that offered 0 percent interest with no money down and no payments for a year.
Mitsubishi sold 256,810 vehicles in 2003, compared with 345,111 in 2002, a 25.6 percent plunge, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Pierre Gagnon, CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, resigned in September and was replaced by Finbarr O'Neill, who had been CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
In December, Mitsubishi laid off 200 of its approximately 1,000 employees at its headquarters in Los Angeles and planned to lay off 425 workers at its assembly plant in Normal, Ill.
The job cuts came after Greg O'Neill, president of the company's sales division, left, as well as Gael O'Brien, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs.
Mitsubishi dealer Chuck Barber says he thinks the company's troubles are behind it. Barber has been in the auto business for 32 years, 13 with Mitsubishi.
Barber owns Barber Bros. Mitsubishi in Orem, Utah. He also is part owner of a Ford dealership in Morgan, Utah, and a Chevrolet-Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep store in Spanish Fork, Utah. In December, he became head of the Mitsubishi National Advisory Board.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Kenn Jones.
What strategy would dealers recommend to pull the company out of its problems?
I think the strategy that dealers would recommend is that we stay focused on our core products (and on) the quality of the brand.
This new Galant is a world-class car. It's a solid part of our sales force. The company needs to stay focused on the Galant, Endeavor, Lancer, the features of the brand and new vehicles on the horizon.
Deal-type marketing has hurt our product. We need to bring our brand up to a Tier 1 level. We've been very aggressive with our incentives, and I think that's hurt us in the long run.
But didn't the 0-0-0 bring in new customers?
I think our inception was good. But I think it did cause problems. With new senior management, their focus will be on growing the brand for the brand's sake.
Sometimes in this business we want things to happen too fast. We need to make a quick deal. We did get a lot of people into Mitsubishi cars.
How did your dealership do with the 0-0-0 incentives?
We did a pretty good job with that. We didn't promote it as much as others. We stuck with some of the traditional programs. The decline has been because of economic times.
What do you think of Finbarr O'Neill?
I met him in September. I'm very impressed.
I was in my dealership at 9 a.m. on Labor Day, and we were naturally ready for a big day, and the first person who called was from Mitsubishi. It was Finbarr O'Neill. He gave a little bit of his personality. He hit the ground running.
I like his no-nonsense attitude. He's making some tough decisions. He's making the changes we felt were necessary.
He's doing the same thing we need to do in our dealerships. He's making changes effectively. He's evaluating things. I don't think it's been easy. He seems to know what needs to be done. It's been difficult.
There have been some ups and downs for dealers in the past year. The No. 1 thing in the past three or four years with Pierre Gagnon and his marketing people was that they really focused on young, hip buyers.
I think new management is going to focus on all of the buyers; we have product for everyone.
Are the dealers getting enough regional help from the factory?
Yes, they are. There's been some realignment of regional directors. There's a regional advisory board. Ten dealers from regions meet. Then two of those go to the national board. The regional board has much more credibility, viability.
Are the marketing and incentive programs adequate?
That's evolving with the new management. The new incentives have been incredible. There are loyalty programs that are as strong as anybody's in the business. We're seeing a change.
Did you have any customers who complained about the past youth strategy?
I did have some customers who felt abandoned. And now they're coming back. We need to add those customers - bring them back to our stable. The Endeavor and Galant will do that.
What's your best seller?
The Lancer. It's an incredibly great car. But with these new incentive programs, we're seeing a lot more people look at Diamante and Montero again.
What is the No. 1 thing the factory can do to keep customers for Mitsubishi?
To stay focused on marketing and bringing state-of-the-art products to market. Improve the visibility of the brand.
What is the No. 1 thing the factory can do to help dealers?
Continue to bring in leading-edge product. No matter what, product is king.
What are the top concerns for the dealer council?
No. 1, increase the intentions of the buying public to shop for Mitsubishi cars. To build awareness faster. We can do a lot of advertising, but if it doesn't create a desire to own our products, it doesn't help. We need marketing to stay the course.
No. 2, to continue to market with incentives that don't demean the brand.
And No. 3, to improve the quality level of the product. In order to be a Tier 1 brand, you need to have a Tier 1 product.
How satisfied are dealers with the Mitsubishi franchise?
Most dealers are in a wait-and-see mode with the new management. I also see a lot of dealers excited. I think it's improving.
Are dealers making money on new-car sales for your franchise?
Not at this point. Not in new cars. Probably in the used-car business.
Do Mitsubishi dealers have the right product mix and overall marketing strategy to be successful?
In most cases, yes. I think we need a pickup truck. We need to have some sort of seven-passenger people mover - I hate to say minivan. There are people who say, "No, I don't want a minivan." An automobile is such a personal thing. A lot of people are what they drive. We see people who are trying to replace a minivan with a Montero.
What percentage of dealers are profitable?
I don't know, nationwide. In my dealer 20 group, 12 out of 16 are very profitable. The numbers were very similar last year.
Is factory advertising an issue for the dealer body?
There's never enough. I think TV ads create an image for a product that nothing else can. You can reach a lot of people. You can have a very effective image. Image can be made or broken on TV. You can't have too much.
How much input do dealers have on advertising?
They have a tremendous input. I find Mitsubishi to be one of the most responsive in this. There are two dealers from every region. Senior management is involved as well as Deutsch advertising in L.A., as well as New York. They have meetings quarterly. They have tremendous impact on advertising. I've never seen so much involvement. They are very proactive.
How important is the Internet to dealers handling Mitsubishi?
It's as important to us as it is to anybody. Our customers are very young and use the Internet quite a bit. We're seeing more people doing research than ever before. It is huge.
We're seeing close to eight to 10 customers bringing in information. They've done the research. When they walk in the door, they want to see the car, drive the car and talk to the salesperson. The customers are now comfortable doing research on the Internet.
How can the factory help dealers use the Internet?
Making it a more seamless process. Make more of an integration between the factory's inventory and the dealer's inventory. Mitsubishi's had some pretty good people on its Internet. They've done a lot.
What's the most important thing you bring back from the advisory board to your dealership?
The fact that we're involved with this new management. They're working in their best interests, which are our best interests.
What do I have to say? Stay the course. There are better days ahead. I'm very excited about the future of this brand. It's a new stage. I think this new management will take it to the next level. I think Finbarr is doing everything with integrity.