TOKYO — Mazda Motor Corp.'s newly designated CEO minces no words about his top priority going ahead.
"In terms of profit and brand, the U.S. is the highest priority," Akira Marumoto, 60, said at a press conference last week after being named the company's next leader, effective June 26.
He has had five years to focus on that challenge, as he has been Mazda's Americas chief since 2013.
Marumoto has overseen the ramp-up of one assembly plant in Mexico and brokered the plans for another in Alabama — all while struggling to build both brand value and volume in Mazda's most important market.
The automaker has had mixed success on both fronts in recent years.
The year Marumoto was tapped to lead the company's Americas region, the brand sold 283,946 vehicles in the U.S. By 2017, the total had barely budged, coming in at just 289,470. Its U.S. market share actually dipped to 1.7 percent, from 1.8 percent, despite Mazda's goal of 2 percent.
But Masamichi Kogai, 63, who will transition from CEO to chairman in June, says Marumoto is uniquely positioned to lead the global company precisely because the U.S. plays such a big role in its growth strategy.
"I can entrust him with all actions and initiatives," Kogai said of Marumoto, who has served as his right-hand man since April 2017.
Senior Managing Executive Officer Kiyoshi Fujiwara will be promoted to executive vice president in charge of North America and r&d. Fujiwara, 58, currently oversees r&d and cost innovation.
Marumoto wants to focus on two key initiatives in the U.S.: strengthening Mazda's U.S. dealer network and making the most of its growing partnership with Toyota.
He has been directing a three-year dealership program to improve about 130 stores. Another 100 dealers have been culled in the restructuring, and the company aims to implement a road map for strengthening the sales network in 35 priority markets.
The goal: a revitalized U.S. network capable of selling 400,000 vehicles a year.
"Retail network reform is the most important thing, so the dealers really understand and come on board with brand value management, become profitable and invest in the Mazda brand," said Marumoto. "We will accelerate these actions."
Mazda expects the surge after it opens the Alabama plant, a factory it will jointly build with Toyota Motor Corp. Slated to open in 2021, the $1.6 billion plant will add 150,000 units of capacity to Mazda — all of which will be devoted to a new crossover for the U.S.
Mazda is hoping the plant eventually will enable the carmaker to sell 2 million vehicles globally, from 1.7 million expected this year.
Marumoto has been walking a fine line between holding back incentives and building volume.
With a lineup traditionally centered on cars such as the Mazda3 and Mazda6 sedans, Mazda has watched profitability slip as it splashes cash on cars and races to tilt its lineup more toward trucks. Mazda's spiff spending rose 19 percent in the first four months of this year, outpacing the industry's 5.8 percent average increase, according to Autodata Corp.
Marumoto also brings longtime experience with Mazda's most important partner: Toyota.
The relationship began five years ago, when he pitched Toyota on the idea of using Mazda's new factory in Mexico to build small cars for Toyota to rebadge and sell in the U.S.
The companies tightened ties last year by taking small stakes in each other. For second-tier Mazda, sheltering with the Japanese juggernaut brings more than funding for the new factory. It will help share the burden of investing in a host of next-generation technologies that Mazda, with its limited r&d budget and reliance on combustion engines, finds harder to afford.
"When we see a win-win, we can probably expand into other areas," said Marumoto, a father of three grown sons who described himself as a fiery taskmaster.
"I admit, I'm quite short-tempered and quite strict about some things," he said.
Marumoto entered Mazda in 1980, when the carmaker from Hiroshima still was called Toyo Kogyo Co.
Kogai, who has led as president and CEO since 2013, piloted Mazda through a complicated transition to a new crop of Skyactiv vehicles with lightweight, sportier platforms and more fuel-efficient direct-injection engines.
He began moving the brand's image more upmarket to shore up profitability and secure help on urgently needed next-generation technologies through partnerships.
It will be Marumoto's task to execute the plan and deliver sustainable growth.
"From now on, we are really going to be strengthening the Mazda brand," Kogai said. "We are going to be working on that full-scale."