01 Apr 2002
Q&A - Mark Fields
Mazda's main man eases into the fast laneTopics:
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
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, Japans 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
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 Mazdas 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. Its
a very rewarding experience to live and work here.
What have you learned about Japan?
Its 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 its
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 its very precise when it comes to technical
and logistical details.
Hierarchy and equality coexist. Its 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 wasnt 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
Do Japans unfamiliar conditions hamper your
ability to reach decisions?
In any new situation, its 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. Its 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 youll make the right decisions, no
matter where you are.
What are some of the business issues youve dealt
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, Im forced
to pay very close attention to whats said, not just for
the literal translation but to understand the real meaning of
what people are communicating.
Another thing Ive realized is that were
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
youre 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 didnt really get them anymore.
Maybe thats because I had aged so much!
Of all the innovations you have introduced, which
have been most embraced?
Ive 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 theyre part of the organizations progress.
In the area of productivity and incentives, weve linked
compensation to individual performance in our middle management
ranks. And weve 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.
Whats 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. Japans 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
Garry Emmons (send e-mail
to the author)
Class of MBA 1989, Section A