TOKYO - Last November, as Mazda's senior managing director for sales, marketing and customer service, Mark Fields spent all of his time working on the last two issues. But now, Fields must worry about everything. On December 15, he became Mazda's third new president in three years as James Miller stepped down, citing health reasons.
The abruptness of the change, however, left some observers looking for other reasons.
Miller's management style is known to have worried some Japanese senior managers at Mazda. And it is known that Mazda union leaders traveled to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, USA, to complain about Miller to Henry Wallace, Miller's predecessor as Mazda president.
Although Wallace becomes Ford's chief financial officer this month, he will retain direct responsibility for Mazda. Miller said Wallace suggested Fields as his successor.
Fields, 36, is the youngest president of a Japanese carmaker ever. He honed his business skills at Ford Argentina SA when that unit was rebuilding after the dissolution of Autolatina, the Ford-Volkswagen joint venture in Brazil and Argentina.
At Mazda, Fields most recently has worked with the product-development staff to ensure that new models fit the Mazda brand personality of 'stylish, insightful and spirited.'
His other major initiative has been the consolidation of Mazda's distribution network in Japan. Under the One Operation program, he merged back-office functions of multiple Mazda-owned or affiliated dealerships in a single prefecture. He also cut the number of outlets in Japan by 20 percent over the past 18 months.
The results so far are encouraging. Year to date through November, Mazda-controlled dealerships have improved their profits by about 1.5 billion yen, or $14 million at current exchange rates.
Already, Fields is turning his attention to Mazda's broader finances. Mazda, more dependent than any other Japanese carmaker on exports, is dangerously exposed to currency swings. This fiscal year, Mazda predicts the yen's strength will cut profits by 8 billion yen, or about $76 million.
Building more cars abroad might reduce the currency exposure, but that's unlikely anytime soon, Fields said.
'We have brick and mortar that's already sucking down fixed costs in Japan,' and Mazda needs to maximize its capacity utilization in Japan before adding capacity overseas, he said.
Some 20 teams in the company are searching for ways to cut costs. All their efforts may be necessary if Mazda is to shrug off the yen's rise and still meet its long-term goal of cutting its debt-to-equity ratio to 50 percent.
Said Fields: 'I'd rather spend money on future products than on paying debt.'