Back in the 1990s, when Mazda was one-third owned by Ford, the two car companies shared the same business premises in the Auckland commercial suburb of Wiri.
In the centre of the premises there was a larger foyer. Doors to the right led to Ford New Zealand, and doors to the left led to Mazda New Zealand.
The two companies were different, but the same.
The sameness came from the model sharing and badge engineering that saw such product as medium-sized sedans sold as the Ford Telstar and the Mazda 626. Compact hatchbacks sold as the Mazda 323 and the Ford Laser. Small hatchbacks sold as the Ford Festiva and the Mazda 121.
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But despite this model sharing, the two companies were fierce competitors on the New Zealand new vehicle market. They might have been close neighbours – almost family – but they were opponents. Ford was a big player with the dominant market share, intent on fighting off any encroachment from smaller players such as Mazda.
And right in the middle of this tough competition environment was Andrew Clearwater, who in April 1992 tendered his resignation from his job in sales and marketing at Ford, so he could take up a new role as sales and marketing manager at Mazda.
Twenty-five years later, Clearwater still vividly remembers what happened the moment he handed in that resignation.
“They marched me out of the room. The HR guy said he’d take me home – but I said nah, just take me over to Mazda, because they had a car waiting for me,” he recalls.
“It was an MX-6 coupe, a 2.5-litre V6 with rear-wheel drive. To me, that underlined one of the good things about Mazda – that it has always made interesting and innovative cars.”
And so Clearwater walked across the shared foyer and into Mazda New Zealand. Now, 25 years later he’s walked out again, retiring after a career that saw him spend 11 of those years as managing director, leading the brand through a critical growth phase.
The figures tell the story. When Clearwater joined Mazda, the brand’s sales for that year were 3200 vehicles. When he was appointed MD in 2006, Mazda’s sales for that year were 6145 vehicles. By 2015 the sales had grown to 10,067, and in 2016 the sales were 11,220 vehicles for a 7.6 per cent market share.
A primary reason for this growth is that from the early-2000s Mazda was able to move out from under the shadow of Ford as the US company progressively sold its shareholding in the Japanese manufacturer, create its own product, and therefore become more a master of its own destiny.
It all started with the Mazda6. It was launched internationally at the same time the Zoom-Zoom marketing campaign was created. This invited customers to experience with the Mazda6, the child-like thrill of being in motion.
That car was good enough to be New Zealand’s Car of the Year and it has been followed up with a number of equally excellent Mazdas, three of which have also won the NZ COTY – the MX-5 sportscar in 2005, Mazda2 hatch in 2007, and Mazda3 in 2014.
This success has been no fluke, says Clearwater.
“There has always been a different culture at Mazda. The US carmakers are clever and very focused on sales and marketing, and they added value to our product when Ford was a shareholder of Mazda. But they never quite understand the quality side of the business – and with Japanese brands quality is always No 1.”
In more recent years, Mazda’s SkyActiv initiative has played a major role in the brand’s sales success. SkyActiv is the term for a series of engine, transmission and chassis technologies that have been introduced to achieve improved performance, fuel consumption and safety.
This has added to the reputation for quality with Mazda product, and it explains why in recent years growing numbers have chosen such product as the CX-3, CX-5 and CX-9 SUVs, Mazda2 and Mazda3 hatchbacks, and the latest edition of the Mazda6 sedan and wagon.
But despite the sales growth, Mazda NZ continues to see itself as small and lean, says Clearwater.
“We still see ourselves as a proud little company, even though these days we’re actually quite a big company. We certainly have grown the brand, and when I look back at Mazda’s success it comes down to having great product and a great dealer network
“I always said to my staff that we’re only as good as our dealer network. I’m very proud to be able to walk away having that box ticked as well.”
Clearwater says in one respect he feels a little like former Prime Minister John Key in retiring from the motor industry – he’s leaving while the going is good.
The next five to 10 years will see unprecedented change in the motor industry, he forecasts.
“The technological change is going to be phenomenal. Without a doubt it is going to be challenging and exciting, and it is hard to see where it is all going to end up. But my time in the motor industry has been a blast, and I’m going to watch with interest what happens from now on.”