Above average performance but can do even better – that’s the report card a Mitsubishi high-up has just given the brand’s New Zealand operation.
AS we sit down to talk, Trevor Mann shows me a display on his phone.
It’s a world map. “I’ve coloured all the places I’ve been in red,” he explains. There’s a lot of it. The little white that’s left is mainly in Africa. All of Europe, North America, every part of Asia is filled in. New Zealand joined the club when he arrived here Wednesday night.
It’s a reminder of how far his job has taken him. Actually, his latest job.
The 56-year-old Briton only been chief operating officer of Mitsubishi Motors since last November, taking on the responsibility virtually straight after the Renault-Nissan alliance bought a controlling stake of Mitsubishi for $US2.3 billion after the smaller automaker admitted to cheating on mileage tests.
The story goes that the industry lifer who learned his trade running Nissan’s plant in his home district of Sunderland was hand-picked for the role by the Alliance’s celebrated chief, Carlos Ghosn, who also heads Renault.
Mann moved to Tokyo, leaving a family behind in England, but doesn’t see too much of his new home, either. Two weeks of very month is spent travelling; a necessity, he explains, because experience tells him that to get to know the brand he now pretty much steers means going to meet the troops in the trenches.
He spent yesterday visiting Mitsubishi Motors’ New Zealand’s head office at Porirua, getting the full lowdown on the brand’s progress and plans, congratulating Warren Brown on his accession to president and CEO of Mitsubishi NZ (replacing Tomoki Yanagawa, who has gone back to Japan) then talking to, and answering questions from, the 60 staff. Oh yes, and providing them with first look at the Eclipse Cross, quite potentially MMNZ’s next big seller – and perhaps also the last wholly in-house designed Mitsubishi car we will see here.
Then into Wellington for our meeting at a big name hotel, an early dinner then work, regardless that today brought a 4am start, the red-eye to Sydney to repeat the same raa-raa with Aussie HQ. He’ll take the weekend off – well, sort of – because a daughter is in town, then on Sunday it’s an overnighter to Tokyo “so I get back in time to be in the office at 8am.”
It’s a busy life. But it needs to be: A key strategic step is to re-allocate future Mitsubishi models to Renault-Nissan platforms, which means bringing some forward and pushing others back.
Beyond that, his remit is to fast-track Mitsubishi back into something it hasn’t been for years; a true international powerhouse.
He is understood to be pushing strategy forward and demanding more rapid decision-making from Mitsubishi execs used to taking their time over decisions.
Time is of the essence.
MotoringNetwork: Mitsubishi has had many challenges, so how is the New Zealand operation performing?
Trevor Mann: New Zealand is a relatively good performer for us. We’re the No.5 brand here. There are not many places in the world where we are the fifth brand. In addition … we are tracking at 27 percent year-over-year growth in a market that is growing 7-8 percent. So we are growing significantly faster than the market.
I want to understand what the team is doing here, why are they doing so well and what support they need to do better.
MN: So are there lessons from this local success that might be useful to apply elsewhere?
TM: The connection we have with the dealers and the customers is good … I think we have a very clear operating model here. It’s run very, very tightly. I think there are many lessons in terms of making sure that our brand is communicated properly, making sure that we deliver very, very good sales and customer satisfaction through service. I think we’ve seen some excellent examples here.
MN: In respect to the new alliance. Our understanding is that Carlos Ghosn is keen to quickly develop synergies between Mitsubishi and Nissan-Renault.What does this mean for New Zealand – at the moment Mitsubishi, Nissan and Renault are all represented here by separate distributors. Can we expect this to change?
TM: The answer is ‘no’. What we want to do, as an alliance, is make sure that we get all of the benefits of making, and selling, over 10 million units a year ... in terms of cost, technologies, synergies.
But we have three separate and distinct brands that we want to maintain. Everything that the Mitsubishi customer sees, feels, touches will be Mitsubishi. In that respect we will keep complete separation.
MN: Could we nonetheless expect that the Eclipse Cross sports utility (on sale from December) will the last wholly in-house designed and developed vehicle that Mitsubishi will sell in New Zealand?
TM: No. Obviously this car was just coming ‘out of the oven’ (when the takeover occurred). But there are also a number of other vehicles that were in the oven that are still to come out.
It is still going to take a couple of years to converge on alliance technology. Why I’m saying converge on alliance technology rather than Nissan’s technology or Renault’s technology is because some of that technology will be Mitsubishi’s.
Some of the technology that is on our ute (Triton), I believe, is a benchmark for our alliance. Also the plug-in hybrid on the Outlander. That is quite unique technology. The alliance does not have plug-in hybrid technology so it makes sense that the alliance would adopt Mitsubishi technology, in that respect.
So it’s not all take … we are also giving to the alliance. Our job, as Mitsubishi people, is to make sure we give as much as we take.
MN: There’s been talk that Mitsubishi’s future will centre more around SUVs and crossovers, with traditional sedans and hatchbacks not featuring high on the priority list, if at all. What’s your comment about that?
TM: You can never say never. But I think our heritage is in SUVs and four-by-fours and that is the way the world is moving. In most of the markets in the world, the hatchback and sedan markets are shrinking and are coming under significant cost pressure. There is a lot of discounting in those.
When you at whether it makes sense to develop another hatchback or sedan … at the moment, when you do the numbers, it doesn’t necessarily look that pretty.
At the moment the market trends are playing to our strengths … we are covering 80 percent of the market. So we have quite a good market coverage.
MN: The one sedan that has been core for Mitsubishi here and has had a remarkable lifespan is the Lancer. Does it have a successor now?
TM: I wouldn’t comment specifically. We will announce our mid-term plan on October 18. You can never say never … but you’ve got to move with the market trends.
There have been lots of brands that have sunset their great cars. Sometimes they return … some cases almost generations later, sometimes earlier. I think we have to focus on our strengths, where they are today and where the market trends are. I think we are very well-positioned with Outlander, ASX and Eclipse Cross.
MN: With SUVs and 4x4 tech being core Mitsubishi strengths, how will this be exploited going forward – traditionally the pinnacle of that strength has been the Pajero. It’s clearly a very old vehicle now, and there has been lots of talk about how a replacement might present, but nothing has ever been confirmed. Can you provide a definitive answer to what’s happening with that nameplate?
TM: The model is obviously significantly aged. There hasn’t been any real investment in that model for a number of years. That type of vehicle is under significant pressure globally.
There are not many people buying that size of vehicle with that size of engine. We have a Pajero Sport which is a different vehicle, but nonetheless is a ‘real’ four-by-four, off-road potential vehicle. So I think Pajero, itself, is under significant pressure environmentally. In our plan it will be there as a hope, with a question mark.
MN: Carlos Ghosn has said it is likely for Mitsubishi and Nissan to cross-manufacture in areas where it makes sense; should we expect to see Mitsubishi vehicles also represented as Nissan product and vice versa?
TM: You will see us sharing common platforms. When the all-new Outlander comes out it will share a common platform with (Nissan) X-Trail and (Renault) Koleos. A platform that is being developed at this moment. The plug-in hybrid version on that platform will use Mitsubishi technology.
Will we see a car with a different dress on? No. When you sit in it, it will be a Mitsubishi. Everything the customer sees and touches, in look and taste and driveability will be engineered by Mitsubishi.
MN: You have touched on Triton. The current Navara is already the basis for a Renault and, of course, Mercedes’ first utility, the X-Class. Given those arrangements, wouldn’t it be more logical for the alliance to simply build another ute off the same platform?
TM: It depends. The Triton has been an extremely successful vehicle, globally, for many years. It has been No.1 in Europe and is still No.1 in some Latin-American countries. It still performs very well head-to-head with the (Toyota) Hiliux in many of the ASEAN countries.
So I think our vehicle performs very, very well. I’ve been giving Warren (MMNZ boss Warren Brown) a hard time today on Triton, because I think we can do better with it here. We’re doing okay, but we can do better.
Going forward? We have to consider which is the best platform. My belief is that the platform, the engineering, the technology of the Triton is superior. I think our relative success on Triton is something that can be used … as the basis of an alliance platform.
MN: As you say, plug-in hybrids are a Mitsubishi strength, but not so for Nissan, whose effort is more attuned to full electrics. The EV scene is growing here and we have interest in both levels of technology. How might this represent with Mitsubishi going forward?
TM: Mr Ghosn has announced that we will have at least 12 vehicles as a three-brand alliance. We, as Mitsubishi, has said we have at least two electric vehicles.
What Mr Ghosn was talking about was pure electric. We (Mitsubishi) has the know-how for plug-in EV. That technology will be proliferated across the rest of the alliance.
My view, strongly, is that electrification of vehicles must come. We will be able to further explain our direction in our mid-term plan. But there will be at least two pure electrics, and we will continue with our plug-in hybrid.
MN: Where does Nissan’s new LEAF fit into this; could it become the basis of a Mitsubishi scenario?
TM: This is an interesting question. Obviously Nissan’s direction, clearly, was to develop a unique electric vehicle on a unique platform, which I think is fine. It has obviously worked for Nissan, they are No.1 for global EV sales.
For Mitsubishi, to develop a pure unique platform and body style becomes … not impossible, but more challenging.
…I don’t foresee, really, that we would look at having a unique platform for an EV in the short to mid-term. We would look to electrify in a different way.
MN: So it would be difficult to create a pure EV as a purely Mitsubishi product?
TM: What I’m saying is that you may in the future is a Mitsubishi vehicle with a number of powertrain options and one of those options could be pure electric. And that could spread across the entire alliance.
What we would obviously share are the electric motors, the inverters, that kind of thing.
MN: New Zealand is unique in this part of the world in accepting pre-owned and parallel imported cars from other countries. What’s your view of this?
TM: I’m a car guy, not a politician, so I don’t want to get into any political debate. Most developed countries try to avoid importation of used vehicles, in large scale.
MN: So we’re mad?
TM: I wouldn’t say it (laughing).