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Muir on failing Mazda: 'we'll manage brand better'

In a press release James Muir said his appointment as managing director of Mazda Motors UK was “a fascinating opportunity”. Others might say he has put his career on the line by accepting it.

By working out and implementing Ford of Britain's strategy over new car prices and margins, Mr Muir was noticed in the right places. Since April, he has been working on a plan to resurrect Mazda in the UK and on August 1 it officially became his responsibility.

He faces quite a challenge with moribund Mazda and acknowledges that with dry humour: “I had hoped the market share would drop even more before I took over - the only way is up.”

This is a big month for Mr Muir, as he will return from honeymoon to get down to tackling the challenge of breathing life into the Mazda brand. 'James Muir' sounds Scottish but his grandfather was Welsh and he describes himself as “a Celtic mongrel”.

Mazda's market share in the UK for the first-half of 2001 was down from 1% to 0.45% year-on-year. Mazda Motor Europe, which set a target of a 2% EU market share three years ago, must be relieved to be finally in control of its destiny in such an important market as the UK.

First-half registrations, in a rising market, dropped from 2000's 12,216 (1% market share) to this year's 5,754 (0.45%). In 1997, Mazda's best year in Britain, registrations topped 33,000 and with a projected total of 15,000 units this year, Mr Muir realises it will be a long haul back.

“A lot of people know MX-5 but don't know Mazda, and some still think of it as a light bulb,” said Mr Muir, 42. “The MX-5 needs to become the UK's top-selling roadster again - and overtake the MGF - and then we must use its halo effect across the rest of the range.”

At the end of July, Mr Muir called the demoralised Mazda UK dealers together. There were reassurances, such as no plan for Ford, which has a 33.4% stake in Mazda, to absorb the UK retail network into its own.

But neither was it a 'we'll conquer the world' inspirational address with promises which he felt could not be kept.

“I believe we can manage the Mazda brand better than MCL,” he said. “I told the dealers to get the business back but made no promises about where I thought we would be by 2005. It was a piece of straight talking.”

The atmosphere at the conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham, was initially tense. “Morale is low, but our dealers started meeting each other again - it had been a long time since they were invited to a conference like that,” he said. “I hear anecdotal evidence from the field team that our dealers are now feeling more encouraged, and I have received some nice letters.”

Mr Muir believes direct distribution will benefit Mazda by ensuring consistency in the way new models are introduced and sold. He wants to make the most of what he describes as Mazda's “quirkiness - it has something distinctive and special about it”.

He promised “significant steps” over the next few months to launch Mazda's fight for a healthier market share in the UK.

Mr Muir has pledged that Mazda Motor Europe has a long-term commitment to building its share of the British market. “I am by nature an optimist, but also a realist, and it will be up to each dealer to make up their mind about their future with the manufacturer,” he said. “I think that if we give them the tools, they should be able to do the job.”

A complete review of the dealer network will be a priority for the new management team. “Every manufacturer has some great dealers, some good dealers and some not so good dealers,” he said. “We need to build a strong retail network.

“I haven't developed a detailed strategy yet but I intend to develop and expand their loyalty to the Mazda brand.” Mr Muir said he liked Mazda's 'Get in, be moved' marketing line which was adapted to 'Get in, be involved, for the dealer conference.

He is still considering MCL's environmental package which was based on telling buyers of new Mazdas that trees would be planted on their behalf. The idea was to give owners a 'green glow' by knowing there would be more trees, to counter the effects of vehicle exhaust pollution.

Mr Muir said some of the current range was bland-looking, and there was “no awareness” of Demio and Premacy. The US-built Tribute off-roader, launched this month in the UK, would “break the mould”.

One of Mr Muir's biggest headaches is the 626. Its market share has halved over the past 30 months and competition has increased with the arrival of cars like the new Ford Mondeo and Renault Laguna.

A new 626 will probably debut at October's Tokyo motor show (possibly as a concept). Other new models would follow and, Mr Muir vowed, there would be no repetition of badge engineering (the Ford Fiesta was also sold as a Mazda 121 in the Nineties).

In October, Mr Muir and his team move into offices at Dartford, Kent, close to Ford of Britain headquarters in Warley, Essex (the Thames provides a convenient psychological separation).

For now, they are operating from the Tunbridge Wells, Kent, offices of MCL which distributed the manufacturer's products through Mazda Cars (UK).

Over the past year, MCL reduced the level of staffing, investment and commitment as, presumably, it sensed Mazda would take over distribution.

Between 1995-2000, Mazda ousted importers to take control of distribution in Germany (where it has a 2.3% market share), Portugal, Spain and Italy. Mazda plans to control 70-80% of its European sales by the end of the year.

Tim Tozer, who led Mazda under MCL, was not offered a place in the new set-up though Mr Muir paid tribute to his professionalism in ensuring a smooth handover.

“He decided it was right and appropriate for him to move on,” said Mr Muir. “I was impressed by Tim's willingness to co-operate with me.”

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