01 Apr 2002
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Q&A - Mark Fields

Mazda's main man eases into the fast lane

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Concluding a successful tenure at Mazda, Mark Fields was appointed on April 19 to head the Premier group, a London-based unit of Ford Motor Company, which controls Mazda. The Premier group, a $23 billion company, includes brands such as Volvo, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover.

In December 1999, Mark Fields (MBA ’89) was handed the keys to the Mazda Motor Corporation and, as its newly named president and CEO, asked to guide the faltering Japanese carmaker back into the black. At 38 (considered shockingly young to lead a major Japanese corporation), Fields would have to navigate significant linguistic, economic, social,and business-culture obstacles — daunting for a foreigner under the best of circumstances — while making the inevitably unpopular decisions required to achieve a turnaround.

Fast-forward a couple of years, to a return to profitability and some 29 new or redesigned Mazda models (including 11 in North America) slated to debut over the next three years. The lineup features the rotary-powered RX-8 sports car and the all-new midsize Mazda6, which, Fields proudly notes, has “class-leading driving dynamics, package, and performance.” For his achievements at Mazda, Japan’s fifth-largest automaker and employer of more than 38,000 people, Fields was named 2001 Asian Business Innovator of the Year (by CNBC Asia Pacific and TNT, a business logistics company)..

A New York and New Jersey native, Fields worked for IBM in sales and marketing after graduating from Rutgers. After HBS, he signed on with the Ford Motor Company, where he served in various capacities, including two years as managing director of Ford Argentina S.A. In 1998, he moved to Mazda (33.4 percent of which is owned by Ford) as senior managing director.

Fields, who is also a Ford vice president, resides with his wife, Jane, and their two sons in Mazda’s home city of Hiroshima, four hours south of Tokyo by bullet train. Says Fields:“Mazda has deep roots in Hiroshima. Generations of local people have given our company a truly special spirit. It’s a very rewarding experience to live and work here.”

What have you learned about Japan?

It’s a land of clarity and ambiguity. Think of a Japanese painting with a beautifully detailed willow branch against a landscape of fog.

Contradictions and paradoxes abound. While it’s a very group-oriented society, it also prizes the individual — and yet there is no word for “privacy” in Japanese. Indeed, the language is often opaque, even for those who are fluent, but at the same time it’s very precise when it comes to technical and logistical details.
Hierarchy and equality coexist. It’s important that people be recognized for their status — where they sit at meetings, for example — whereas in other aspects of life, everybody is treated the same.

How do you operate in such a different environment?

I spent the first year developing a strategic operating plan for the company. For the first seven months, I devoted myself to the nemawashi process (literally “Plant and cultivate the roots”) with my directors. We thoroughly explored the business because I wanted them to see the challenges that exist beyond their own departments — the view from where I sit, as it were.

Once we had laid out the facts, unpalatable though some of them were, we dealt with them quickly. If you take the time to do the nemawashi process, the implementation of subsequent action is lightning fast. It wasn’t consensus decision-making so much as consensus-building, because at the end of the day, I had to make the decisions. But everyone felt included in the process.

Do Japan’s unfamiliar conditions hamper your ability to reach decisions?

In any new situation, it’s very important to have confidence in your judgments. So from the outset, you have to be curious and open and ask a lot of questions in order to learn all you can. At the same time, you have to demonstrate your competence and make your priorities clear. It’s important to become culturally literate, but not to lose your sense of self — bringing a new viewpoint is part of the change process.

Having done all that, decision-making for me is a combination of clearheaded logic and gut feel. Be decisive and have confidence. If you perform the appropriate due diligence up front, then you can be confident that you’ll make the right decisions, no matter where you are.

What are some of the business issues you’ve dealt with?

Cost issues, an oversized workforce, overcapacity in our production facilities, unsuccessful growth strategies, and a brand image — Mazda was once synonymous with innovation and excitement — that had become blurred.

To fix those things, we had to win the support of the management team in order to restructure and reform. That required more nemawashi and lots of communication. We proceeded to close an assembly plant last year to take down capacity by 25 percent. We also reduced our indirect workforce by 20 percent, becoming one of the first major Japanese companies to take such a decisive step. Lifetime employment in Japan is culturally expected, so it was a very difficult thing to do. Many other companies are now doing it as well.

Now we look forward to better days. Our business plan for the next three to five years — known as our Millennium Plan — calls for growth, continued restructuring and reform, investment in our people, and synergies with Ford, our partner.

Has Japan made you a better manager?

Before I came to Japan, I was not a great listener. Here, 99 percent of my meetings are in Japanese; I have a full-time interpreter and spend practically the whole day wired up with an earpiece. Because of the language differences, I’m forced to pay very close attention to what’s said, not just for the literal translation but to understand the real meaning of what people are communicating.

Another thing I’ve realized is that we’re very good in the West at minimizing the process of molding consensus, in order not to “waste” a lot of time reaching a decision. But what happens many times is that a month later you find that you’re going back and revisiting that decision. In Japan, the nemawashi process, while sometimes tedious and frustrating, has shown me the value of taking the time to get issues aired out and to bring everybody on board.

Is your age an issue?

For the first six months, I got a lot of questions about my age; after that, I didn’t really get them anymore. Maybe that’s because I had aged so much!

Of all the innovations you have introduced, which have been most embraced?

I’ve put a lot of focus on frequent in-person and e-mail communication at all levels. It helps people understand our revitalization process, so they can tie their own efforts to it and feel they’re part of the organization’s progress. In the area of productivity and incentives, we’ve linked compensation to individual performance in our middle management ranks. And we’ve greatly improved options and opportunities for our women employees, who tend to have more traditional roles in companies here compared with the United States. All of these ideas — innovative for Japan — have been well received.

What’s your forecast for Japan?

Throughout its history, Japan has usually transformed itself rapidly when faced with gaiatsu, or foreign pressure. It happened in the 1850s when Commodore Perry arrived and again in the aftermath of World War II. The country is going through the same sort of thing right now. Japan’s strengths — sense of community, teamwork, employee loyalty, dedication to continuous improvement, high levels of education, technical capability — are evident. What has to happen is the government must implement economic reforms. I believe it will happen. But the question is when.

— Garry Emmons (send e-mail to the author)

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