TOKYO - By tapping Mitsuru Sato as its new president, General Motors Japan Ltd. has landed one of the most experienced and successful hands in Japan's import-car market.
Based on his track record selling Volkswagens and Jeep Cherokees for most of the decade, Sato is more likely to criticize factory executives than Japanese government policies.
'That's my job - to listen more carefully and to sometimes fight with the factory,' Sato said in an interview last week.
Sato, who moved into his new job 1 September, said US automakers' perceived whining over trade barriers has turned off potential customers in Japan. The real problem, he said, was inappropriate product.
'The Big 3 gave a very bad impression to the Japanese public with their complaints about the Japanese economy,' he said.
'Without the right car, we could not sell. Introducing right-handdrive cars helped sales. My job is to promote those efforts and listen more carefully to what Yanase and its dealers need.'
Yanase & Co. is GM Japan's importer and distributor.
End-around to Eaton
Sato has taken on a factory before, over the Jeep Cherokee.
He was in charge of Honda Motor Co.'s efforts to sell imported Jeeps from 1991 to 1993. Frustrated by quality problems with the Cherokee, Sato sought a meeting with Chrysler Corp. Chairman Robert Eaton.
When he found that his rank was too low to merit time with Eaton, Sato turned to Honda Chairman Yoshihide Munekuni. He accompanied Munekuni on a courtesy call to Eaton, then dominated the meeting with complaints about such specifics as a rattle-causing wiring problem on the Cherokee.
Soon after, better Jeeps started showing up in Japan, and sales increased.
Sato headed Volkswagen's operations in Japan in 1994.
In 1993, Volkswagen parted with Yanase, its previous distributor and retailer, and sales plummeted 41 percent to 24,800. Sato joined Volkswagen the next year, and sales rose to 60,306 in 1996, before slipping (along with the overall market) to 60,130 in 1997.
He thought then he would retire from autos. 'I wanted to be a professional farmer,' raising vegetables and other crops, Sato said last week. 'I've bought a riding tractor and begun raising bees.'
He turned down an offer to run the Japan business of another US carmaker. But the prospect of heading the Japan operations of the world's largest auto company was too appealing to resist, he said.
Some success stories
With Sato's appointment, Douglas Herberger, formerly president of GM Japan, becomes chairman. On 1 January, Herberger will return to the United States as one of five regional general managers under Roy Roberts, GM vice president for field sales, service and parts.
GM Japan is enjoying mixed success in a lousy market this year.
'The product is improved, and Yanase has done a good job with it,' said Herberger.
Through July, sales of imported cars in Japan were down 27.5 percent, much worse than the 14.4 percent drop for the industry as a whole.
Opel, GM's volume brand in Japan, suffered sales declines of 34.2 percent to 14,221, due in part to a scarcity of the new Astra.
On the other hand, the new right-hand-drive Seville has pushed Cadillac sales up 19.6 percent to 2,601.
Saab sales have more than quadrupled, to 1,192, because of the new 9-5, and because GM switched Saab from a small, independent importer to the much larger Yanase network.
Chevrolet sales were up 4 percent to 3,754, and Saturn sales are up 181.2 percent to 869, on the continued rollout to new dealers.
'Saturn is a good success, really,' said Sato.
Because of its no-discount/one-price strategy, Saturn dealers' profitability is better than the industry average, he said.