Reviving the Mazda brand in South Africa in a period just short of two years, Managing Director, David Hughes, is confident that a drop in the market will continue to have little effect on the company’s current winning streak.
Hughes, who started his career with Mazda in Australia in 1985, is no stranger to taking risks—making the bold decision to immigrate to Australia from his hometown in Manchester when he was barely 15.
“One day, I saw an advert in the paper with white beaches and blue skies, advertising immigration to Australia for £10, and I decided to take the chance,” he says.
Hughes started the process, going to the information session, and collecting all the necessary documents, all without his parents’ knowledge.
“I used to do paper rounds and slowly took money out of my savings account so that no one would notice. And then one day, my ticket arrived. I made my way to the train station in Manchester without a stitch of luggage, parked my bike outside and took the train to London. Leaving my parents and seven siblings behind, I boarded the plane to Perth.”
When Hughes arrived two days later, the sponsor family he organised for himself quickly realised he was not the 18-year-old boy he had claimed to be. They alerted immigration authorities and he was locked up in a small cell.
“Back home, I was presumed missing and to make the situation worse, this all happened at the height of the Moors murder fiasco. I’m not sure my father was worried, but my poor mother thought I was dead,” explains Hughes.
“The police in Manchester visited my parents and brought them to the station where they were talking to me on the phone. I spoke to my mom, who thought I meant Perth in Scotland, and told me to get myself straight home. But the terms and conditions stated that you had to stay in Australia for at least two years, or pay the full airfare to get back home.”
And so, Hughes stayed. Living with his sponsor family and confident that he wanted to work in the automobile industry, he quickly got a job as an apprentice for a local mechanic, an event that would shape the rest of his career.
“After two years, I was promoted to a service manager position where I really developed and proved my strength in the service and parts division. In 1985, I started working for Mazda and have been working for them on and off ever since. The Mazda brand is just in my blood,” says Hughes.
In 1992, he took on the role of National Sales Manager for Mazda’s short-lived premium brand, Eunos, but left the company four years later after the Eunos venture closed. Hughes then worked his way up to general manager at Kia Australia before returning to Mazda as the Western Australia State Manager in 2003, also serving as National Sales Manager from 2006 to 2011.
“I was cruising through the Mediterranean with my wife in 2013, convinced my working days were over, when I got a call from the head office in Japan to say they had another job for me, and that’s how I found myself here,” he says.
As of October 2014, with Ford no longer the distributor for Mazda, Hughes was assigned the challenging task of setting up the new Mazda Southern Africa (MSA) office. “We moved into our new head offices in Midrand in May, which in itself was an achievement with the construction of these offices only starting three months earlier. I was also given the difficult task of convincing the then 38 people to come and work for us, provided that our office was still just a field and our company a little more than a dream,” he says.
According to Hughes, the Mazda brand was in very poor health when he arrived, Ford distributors reported sales figures of only 4 900 vehicles for the year of 2014. Of those 4 900, only 2 500 were passenger cars, the BT 50 light commercial vehicle making up the rest of the sales.
“Those figures came from 127 Ford dealers across the country, which averages out at only 38 vehicles per dealer. For us, business only really started in 2015 and sales figures at the end of the year showed a marked improvement, with 9 067 vehicles sold across 50 dealers, and only 15% of those the BT 50,” he says.
While the South African new-vehicle market has, according to Hughes, dropped by around 11% this year, he feels comfortable in reaching the sales target of around 11 000, an increase of 55% from 2015. “Despite this drop in the market, we are still growing, and that says something about what we’ve managed to do here. The company is essentially only 18 months young, it started with the aim of changing the way South Africans feel about Mazda, and I think we are starting to do just that.”
Hughes hopes to position Mazda as the brand of choice for private buyers, and those business buyers who behave like private buyers, while avoiding the large-scale fleet and rental business, fearing this may drag resale values down.
“Our focus is customer-centric, rather than simply flooding the market with our vehicles. This is where our dealerships play a pivotal role in ensuring the success of our brand. We operate as a family business, rather than a large corporate, and providing our customers with real value rather than simply discounting prices is key to our overall strategy,” says Hughes.
As a global brand, Mazda is constantly working to improve its offering, the ‘KODO—Soul of Motion’ design principles shaping the dynamic style and premium presence of the Mazda2, Mazda3, Mazda6, Mazda CX-5, Mazda CX-9 and the Mazda CX-3.
“The styling of the car needs to capture people, and KODO is about building the spirit of the car into the body shell. SKYACTIV, a series of technologies developed by Mazda, are also aimed to increase fuel efficiency and engine output with the design of new engines, transmissions, body and chassis. Rather than go the hybrid or hydrogen route, we made the decision to reinvent the petrol and diesel engine instead. By 2018, these cars will be so advanced, they will take things to a new level. The future will not only be protected, but it really is looking very bright, innovative and exciting,” he says.
Expecting to take another 18 months to perfect their strategy, Hughes has taken great measures to encourage a culture of caring in the company. Addressing customer service in particular, Hughes believes that profit should not always be the main incentive.
“I’m trying to instil in dealerships the idea that it’s okay to care. And while our dealers care for our customers, we need to look after them. Good profit for them empowers them to ensure they have good premises, and hire good staff. This then benefits the customer. We also don’t have paddocks filled with vehicles waiting to be sold, keeping demand up and impacting the resale value positively. This is ultimately our formula for success and with it, we have indeed managed to hit a sweet spot in the South African market.”