The man who has guided Mazda New Zealand from being an almost niche marque to a big time brand looks back on his career on the day of his retirement.
ANDREW Clearwater, who steps down today as Mazda New Zealand’s boss, has seen plenty of change during his 25 years with the brand.
He talks today about some of the highlights of a tenure that has seen the Hiroshima brand come close to quadrupling its annual sales and doubling its passenger market share.
MotoringNetwork: When you joined Mazda in 1992 as marketing manager it was still co-partnered with Ford, sharing a common building – but with separate office space – at Wiri in Auckland and you were a Ford New Zealand employee. Tell us about the transition and your first days in the job?
Clearwater: It was a pretty quick exit from Ford. In those days they just marched you out of the room. The HR guy said ‘I’ll take you home’ and I said, ‘nah, just take me over to Mazda, they’ve got a car for me.’
“It was an MX-6 coupe, 2.5-litre V6 and rear wheel steer, a car which I think reflected the sort of brand that Mazda is. They always made interesting cars and continue to do so.
MN: Was that a reason for leaving Ford?
AC: Japanese to American culture is quite different. Americans are very clever guys, very focussed on the sales and marketing side and they certainly added value when they were a major shareholder in Mazda Motor Corporation. But they never quite understood the quality side of the business. And quality with Japanese brands is always No.1. And that’s what always impressed me. I guess there was always a bit of conflict I that relationship – good, healthy conflict but nevertheless it just felt more like an extended family when I came and joined Mazda.
MN: How was that first week?
AC: The first day I was right into the thick of it. Bob Bilton (an ex Mazda marketing manager, still then involved with the brand) came along with these guys from Italy, a rally team with a Group A 323 (here for Rally New Zealand). These guys … I don’t know if they came to race or just to party, but a week later they were still here. They just kept changing their tickets and they had a great time. I thought ‘oh, well, this is what the Mazda brand is all about.’
MN: And then you met the New Zealand motoring press.
AC: Yes, I remember our first conference, done in grand style and, not really anything like I’d experienced before. We were in Woodhill Forest, a fantastic marquee with white table clothes and Regent Hotel was catering … we had Neil Allport there and he was taking the journoes through the forest. Fortunately he stayed upright though later in the day he didn’t. He was trying to impress one of the girls from the hotel and he flipped the car. She broke her arm and all the rest of it. You wouldn’t get away with it these days under health and safety.
Then there was the time we went out in a boat (to the Hole in the Rock) nd tried to drown 20 journalists (when the craft lost power and almost foundered).
MN: This also still the era of local car assembly, wasn’t it?
AC: Yeah. On our good days, we could build cars that were probably of similar quality to Japan. But there just weren’t that many good days. It was funny old business, really. We obviously had all this tariff protection and that made us viable, although our bottom line never really seemed to enjoy the success of local assembly. When the doors closed and we started getting cars from Japan the quality improved dramatically and our bottom line improved dramatically.
MN: So closure was a good thing?
AC: Well, when you think about it, there were so many assembly plants, but all the people working there seemed to find other vocations in life pretty quickly, so there wasn’t a big drain on the economy in terms of people being without jobs.
MN: The post assembly period was really a rebirth for your brand, yes?
AC: We were a pretty slim operation and that’s the thing about Mazda. We’ve always been a small, lean company. We still see ourselves as a proud little motor company, though actually in NZ we are (in terms of sales impression) actually quite a big company all of a sudden. Then we were getting three percent of the market – now we’re getting over eight percent. When I joined the company, we sold 3200 cars in the first year. Last year we sold 11,200.
MN: That’s obviously something you can take immense pride in.
AC: We certainly have grown the brand … when I look back at Mazda’s success it comes down to having great product, but more importantly, a great dealer network. I always say to my staff that we’re only as good as our dealer network. They are our prime customers and we’ve really focussed hard to make life easier for them, so they can just get on with the job. I think that’s why we have been recognised in various surveys as having the best dealer-distributor relationship. I’m very proud to be able to walk away having that box ticked. Also being No.1 on the private passenger market, No.1 I the SUV market, without the rentals .. they’re all good achievements.
MN: What’s your view of the industry as you leave it?
AC: We (Mazda NZ) are in a real sweet spot at the moment with our product. I think you are going to continue to see some pretty exciting stuff coming out of the Mazda stable.
The next five, to 10 years, I think we are going to see unprecedented change in the motor industry … the technology change is going to be phenomenal. It might be a wee bit slower in NZ, because we have all these funny old cars on our roads. That might slow down some of the technology but, without a doubt, it’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be exciting and it is just hard to see where it is going to end up. The whole world is being disrupted at the moment, but our industry particularly.