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Mazda

Mazda (Japan)

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Mazda is Japan's #4 automaker, though less than half the size of its larger countrymates. It is best known in the West for its sporty coupes, although it also makes a broad range of other models, especially for the domestic market. During the 1990s and early 2000s the company became increasingly intertwined with US giant Ford. The American car maker took effective control of its Japanese partner in 1996, and assisted in a complete restructuring of the business in 2000 in order to counter several years of slow and steady decline, especially in Japan. The overhaul paid off, resulting in a resurgence in growth, not least internationally, supported by its appealing "Zoom Zoom" marketing message. Ford slashed its shareholding in 2008, as it wrestled with problems of its own resulting from the global slowdown in automobile sales, and ties between the two companies gradually loosened over the next four years. At the same time, Mazda struggled with its own serious challenges, resulting in four straight annual losses from 2009 to 2012. Performance has gradually improved since 2013. Yet the company has also decided to secure its future by agreeing a development partnership with local giant Toyota, which acquired an initial 5% stake in Mazda in 2017.

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Mazda performed well after it reinvented itself in the early 2000s, creating a strong fusion of Japanese technology and efficiency with Western-influenced marketing and design - it still offers arguably the best-designed cars of any Japanese manufacturer. However, global recession and localised problems in Japan resulted in very tough times between 2009 and 2012. Mazda lacks the broad range of models offered by its peers, although it has made attempts to widen its offering, most notable with the launch of several SUVs since 2006. Like all automobile manufacturers it suffered from the slump in global car sales in 2008 and 2009, and that suffering was prolonged for Japanese companies by the soaring value of the Japanese yen against Western currencies and then the disruption resulting from the earthquake disaster of March 2011. This was exacerbated by the fact that Mazda remains heavily dependent on the export market, which accounts for over 80% of unit sales. Its own sales remained weak during 2012/13, even as rival Japanese manufacturers enjoyed a significant rebound.

After years of slow decline during the 1990s, Mazda reinvented itself in 2002 as a manufacturer of sporty and stylish but affordable cars, a message summed up in the brand slogan "Zoom Zoom". It defines this Mazda Spirit as "the exhilaration and liberation from experiencing the emotion of motion". The Zoom Zoom tag has been quietly phased out in Western markets since 2015 in favour of new slogan "Driving Matters".

A little over a third of the group's cars are made outside Japan. For many years, Auto Alliance USA was a joint venture with Ford, which made the Mazda 6 and Lincoln Cougar. However, Mazda's stake was reacquired by Ford in 2012, and all US models are imported, mainly from Mexico. Another Auto Alliance joint venture factory in Thailand makes the Mazda 3 and Ford Ranger. Mazda's main Hiroshima plant is one of the world's largest car factories.

The group has developed a unique energy-efficient hybrid engine technology of its own, which uses not electricity but hydrogen as its alternative fuel. The first models became available in 2009. It is also the world leader in four-cylinder rotary engines, and the only mass producer to use those engines in cars. In 2011, the group launched its first models with SkyActiv Technology, an umbrella programme which aims to provide maximum environmental efficiency in all aspects of vehicle design from engine and transmission systems to physical appearance. More than three-quarters of new models now incorporate that technology.

Following its strategic partnership with Ford, Mazda steadily and firmly shifted its focus towards international markets. However, the economic recession caused unit sales to fall steeply in 2008 and 2009, and there was a further impact on domestic sales from Japan's 2011 earthquake. The loosening of ties with Ford also hindered its performance, with the result that volumes were stuck for several years within a comparatively narrow range, from a high of 1.36m units in the year ending March 2008 to a low of 1.19m in the year to 2010. A key concern was the lack of a resurgence in international markets, which have provided the engine for Mazda's development for more than a decade. As a result, Mazda even slipped behind countrymate Suzuki in total global volumes.

Performance has recovered somewhat since then. For calendar 2016, Mazda's total registrations edged up a little under 1% to 1,540,582 vehicles, overtaking Suzuki again for the global #4 position among Japan's auto manufacturers and the overall #14. For the fiscal year to March 2017, Mazda claimed total sales of 1.56m units.

Mazda's best-selling vehicle worldwide is the Mazda 3 (known as the Axela in Japan), which accounts for almost 30% of all unit sales, or 451k units in 2016. In 2006, the group launched its first SUV models, the crossover CX range. The CX-5 is now the group's #2 model at 363k units, supported by the full-size 7-seat CX-9, compact CX-3 launched in 2015, and three-row CX-8 launched in 2017. These are supported by the Mazda 6 or Atenza, and Mazda 5 or Premacy. Top seller by far in its home market is the Demio small car, known internationally as the Mazda 2. Perhaps the company's most desirable model is the sporty MX 5 roadster, although sales are modest at under 20,000. The Bongo and Titan light trucks (exported as the E-series and T-series vans) represent Mazda in the commercial vehicles segment.

The launch of a range of SUVs helped to boost sales in the US in particular. The CX-9 SUV was named North American Truck of the Year for 2008, the first time Mazda had ever won that award. The US has long been Mazda's biggest international market, and it finally overtook Japan in unit sales in 2006. Despite the recent crash, it has remained Mazda's top country. Unit sales in the US in calendar 2016 were 298k units (below past highs over 300k). Until recently, the most productive market, though, was China, where sales had grown from around 20,000 vehicles in 2002 to a record 236k by fiscal 2011. Mazda has joint ventures with local partners First Auto Works and Changan Automotive Group. However the nationalist row over a small group of islands claimed by both China and Japan prompted a boycott by Chinese consumers of Japanese goods during 2012. As a result, Mazda's sales there plunged by almost 22% to as little as 175k units, though they later recovered ground rising to almost 267k units by 2016. By China standards, though, that is very low. The company is hoping for a lift in 2017 after its CX-4 crossover was named as China Car Design of the Year. Domestic sales have also remained under intense pressure, falling to a new multi-year low of 201k for calendar 2016, far below the 400k cars the company sold at home back in the 1980s.

Other important territories are Australia, Germany, Thailand and Israel. The company has gradually reacquired control of its dealership operations in several key markets, especially in Europe, although sales in that region were worse hit than any other, effectively halving between 2009 and 2013. The group announced plans to enter the South American region for the first time in 2013, with Brazil as its debut market. It already has a presence in Mexico and Central America.

Ford increased its shareholding in Mazda to 33% in 1996. In 2008, however, it sold off a considerable chunk of that holding, reducing its stake to around 11% by mid 2010. Most of the remaining shares were sold over the next few months, and a simultaneous capital increase by Mazda had reduced the holding to just 2.1% by March 2012. Nevertheless, the two companies said they will maintain their "special relationship". However, in 2015, Mazda also agreed an alliance with Toyota to work together on environmental and advanced safety technologies. The larger company acquired a 5% equity stake in Mazda in 2017, and the two companies announced a joint plan to launch a massive new factory in the US building both companies' cars. It will allow Mazda to manufacture cars in the US again for the first time since the end of its Auto Alliance USA joint venture with Ford in 2012.

Financials

Mazda enjoyed a strong run in the six years following its relaunch in 2002. Sales peaked at almost Y3,476bn in fiscal 2008, before crashing back over the following two years as a result of the brutal automobile market and soaring yen. Revenues fell to a low of Y2,163bn for the year to March 2010 - the poorest performance since 2002 - before recovering slightly in 2011 to Y2,326bn ($27.0bn). Disruption following the Great East Japan Earthquake pushed sales down to a new low in ye 2012 of Y2,033bn. There was a modest recovery in 2013 to Y2,205bn ($26.6bn). The difficult environment also resulted in four straight years of losses between 2009 and 2012 totalling almost Y250bn. For the year to March 2013, the company was back in the black with a surplus of Y34.3bn ($413m).

Performance has continued to improve since then as a result of the weaker yen and the general recovery in the global automobile market. For the year to March 2015, revenues were back over the Y3 trillion level for the first time since 2008 at Y3,034bn. Net income rose 17% to a company record of Y159bn.

Revenues for the year ending 2016 hit an eight-year high of Y3,407bn ($28.4bn), before slipping back the following year to Y3,214bn ($29.7bn). Net income for the year to 2017 slumped to Y93.8bn ($866m), the lowest level since 2013. The company generated almost 84% of unit sales outside Japan in the year to 2015.

Background

After several years dabbling in different businesses including the manufacture of pumps and explosive fuses, Jujiro Matsuda acquired a small tree cork factory outside Hiroshima in 1920 and renamed it Toyo Cork Kogyo Co. By the end of the decade the company had set up industrial production facilities to make machine tools. Toyo diversified in the 1930s into the manufacture of motorcycles and later light three-wheeler trucks, mostly for the domestic and Chinese market. Matsuda's business was greatly disrupted by World War II, although by a stroke of great good fortune only a small part of his factory was destroyed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Matsuda died in 1952, but control of the business passed to his son. Manufacture of motorcycles and light trucks helped the company to grow rapidly, and in 1960, Toyo took advantage of the domestic car-buying boom to launch a range of passenger cars under the brand-name Mazda, selected in honour of Ahura Mazda, an ancient Zoroastran lord of light and wisdom, and also phonetically similar to the name of the company's founder. (Mazda light bulbs, produced by General Electric in the first half of the 20th century, were also coincidentally named after this mythological figure but had no connection to the car company). The business turned out a million vehicles by 1963, becoming Japan's #3 auto manufacturer. In 1967 the company began exporting to Europe, and also became the first mass producer of passenger cars to use a four-cylinder aircraft-style rotary engine in its models. The Cosmo Sport was the first such model and Mazda has continued to use rotary as opposed to traditional piston engines ever since.

In 1969, Mazda teamed up with Ford and Nissan to form Jatco, making transmission units. Ford bought a 25% stake in Mazda in 1979, and helped the company establish local operations in the US and Europe in the early 1980s. Mazda also tied up with Korean Kia Motors, selling them an 8% stake. Relations with Ford developed further in 1982 when Mazda's Autorama sales business began to distribute Fords in Japan. The company ditched the Toyo name and rebranded itself Mazda in 1984. Three years later Mazda, Ford and Matsushita formed a new company, Japan Climate Systems, to produce automotive air conditioners and heating units. Meanwhile Auto Alliance, a joint venture with Ford, was established to manufacture Mazdas in the US from 1987. Since 1989, Mazda has also imported Citroens to Japan and in 1992 sold Ford half of both Autorama and its US manufacturing plant AutoAlliance International.

However by the mid-1990s, the company was in difficulty. It had slipped into 5th place in its domestic market, while sales in North America also slumped. Ford increased its stake to 33%, and took management control of the business. American executive Henry Wallace set a controversial precedent that year, becoming the first "gaijin" or foreigner to run a major Japanese company. He began a process of consolidation, closing or merging several manufacturing plants in the US and Europe, and dramatically cutting the number of cars made in Japan from almost 1.3m units in 1992 to less than 800,000 by 1999. Commercial vehicle production was cut by two-thirds. After several years of difficulty, the company increased market share in 1998, and posted an operating profit for the first time in five years. However the position deteriorated the following year. Mazda was one of several Japanese companies which saw profits tumble as a result of the sharp increase in the exchange rate for the yen. Interim profits dropped almost 70%, as the strong yen reduced revenues earned overseas while domestic and Asian markets showed few signs of recovery.

The group's new president Mark Fields, appointed in 2000, implemented a new series of wide-ranging cost cuts, selling off subsidiaries, closing factories, and reducing staff. However, the task was greatly hampered by the fact that Mazda was far and away the biggest employer in its home town of Hiroshima, estimated to be responsible for as much as 25% of that city's economy. All cost cuts had to be negotiated carefully with unions and local authorities. A further ongoing problem was Mazda's dependence on the export market. As a result, Mazda has always been affected by any fluctuations in the exchange rate of Japanese yen. Yet another bleak year followed in 2000. Accounting adjustments made to the company's pension liabilities created a one-off cost of Y155bn, with the result that the company reported a net loss of Y155.2bn ($1.3bn). However Fields promised to return the company to break-even for the fiscal 2001, and in fact the group did even better than expected.

Also in 2001, Mazda bought back its dealership operation in the UK, previously a joint venture between Itochu Corporation and Inchcape, as well as its sales operations in France, Switzerland, and later Austria. In 2002, Mark Fields was shifted across to Ford. His replacement, Lewis Booth, spent a year in the CEO job before he too was moved across to Ford Europe in 2003. Although the group has distributed its cars in China since 2001, it greatly strengthened its position in 2004 with a deal to market cars locally through local manufacturer First Auto Works. Hisakazu Imaki became chief executive in September 2003, the first Japanese to hold that title since Ford took control of the business in 1996.

Last full revision 17th November 2017

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