How Huntsville Fits Into Mazda’s Global Strategy

The U.S. is Mazda’s No. 1 priority, a company executive told representatives of Alabama’s automotive industry Thursday. Which is why its planned $1.6 billion joint manufacturing plant in Huntsville is only part of a global strategy.

James Lievois, executive vice president for Mazda’s North American operations, said the Japanese automaker’s long-term strategy is still focused on providing an enjoyable, luxury driving experience. And even in an era when the auto industry is looking at electric and autonomous vehicles, Mazda remains bullish on the internal combustion engine.

“We believe in the freedom provided by the personal car,” Lievois said. “At Mazda, driving is alive and well.”

The Hiroshima-based company, poised to celebrate its centennial in 2020, represents about 2 percent of the global automotive market. Its U.S. operations are based in California. Selling in 130 countries through 5,000 dealerships, the company has an image of itself as a scrappy, sure-footed, sometimes underdog, producing a quality car that’s fun to drive,

Lievois inspired laughter by projecting an image of a sumo wrestler faced down by a child dressed as a sumo wrestler on a screen.

“This is how we feel sometimes,” he said.

But at the same time, Mazda sells about 1.6 million vehicles worldwide, and sees its American customer taking home about $85,000 a year - a more affluent driver who is willing to pay more for value.

The company’s current production sites are in Japan, Mexico, Thailand and China. Of course, it plans to open the Huntsville plant in 2021, which will employ about 4,000. The plant will produce the Toyota Corolla and a crossover that has not yet been unveiled, turning out about 300,000 vehicles per year. The company expects to realign its supply chain and operations to accommodate the plant.

At the same time, Lievois said Mazda is undergoing a push nationwide to revamp its dealer network, “upgrading the retail experience” for customers. The new dealerships, called “retail evolution facilities," grade higher in customer experience through architecture and design, he said. Currently, 47 dealerships have undergone the conversion, with another 25 under construction. The goal is to have 300 completed by 2022.

As the time for construction of the Huntsville plant nears, the two companies - Mazda and Toyota - are working on what their joint operation will look like.

Mark Brazeal, vice president of Mazda Toyota, said the two companies have shared values and are trying to incorporate those into its partnership. What that will look like, with two separate assembly lines, may be a blend of Mazda’s inspiring customer loyalty, combined with Toyota’s teamwork and ethos of continuous improvement.

However, Lievois said Mazda intends to remain an independent company.

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