Mazda Philippines president and CEO Steven Tan reflects on his automotive career
How did you get started in the auto industry?
I have to admit that almost every single job in my life had been largely unplanned, and that they were opportunities that just happened to be there. My first automotive job was with Ford Motor in Malaysia. I was an Account Service guy who happened to pitch for the Ford account and won. I wanted a car account, having won mobile, fuel, ice cream, bank…I used to work in corporate banking before advertising. One day, I wondered: Why don’t we have car account? The advertising agency I worked for had the Ford account almost everywhere but in Malaysia. So we pitched, and we won. And then I left the account to work on something else. Six months later, they called me and offered me the marketing job. I like cars, and I felt Ford needed some help. They were an underdog brand, so I went there. I had been a car guy before I had a car job. But I never grew up wanting a car job. Now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What was the best thing you learned working for Ford?
Ford is a company that is more than a 100 years old, and has survived countless crises and always come back. I have a lot of respect for that resilience and tenacity. It’s the same respect I have for Mazda as a company, but in a totally different way. Mazda is a small company with extreme discipline and an impossibly high engineering standard. I was very fortunate in my 15 years at Ford. They allowed me to move through many different interesting assignments and responsibilities. Some of which were incredibly ambitious, but all them taught me the ability to get along with everybody—the ability to provide leadership to a diverse multinational team.
Describe the feeling of leaving a proven multinational car company (Ford) and moving to a start-up (Mazda Philippines).
Of course, it was difficult, especially when you have a young family that had grown up outside your home country—and when you don’t have a home anymore in that home country. My wife and I left Malaysia in 2000, and the kids came after that. So it was a big, scary decision. But I think it has to be a big, scary opportunity that keeps you awake for months. I was lucky. Mazda and Berjaya gave me a lot of space to decide. In the end, I knew it was time to move on to another place, to start again, to be able to apply my belief and philosophy more forcefully. And to do that in a place I felt at home in, and with people I could connect and enjoy. Those people made me take the leap.
What’s your ultimate dream car?
If someone only has one ultimate dream car, the person is a liar or not a “car guy.” I have several. And given the means to get them, I’d love a Shelby Cobra and, as a former rally competitor, a Lancia Integrale HF. I have never forgotten wanting an Alfa Romeo GT Junior. The 1964.5 Mustang is pretty special to me. Nowadays, I’d like to get my hands on a Miata NA. I even made an offer on Tom Matano’s Miata two years ago in San Francisco. He has never gotten back to me.
This year, Mazda topped the J.D. Power customer service index for the Philippine automotive market. How did you do it?
We never intended to win any awards for customer service, so this was completely unexpected. Honestly, it is kind of ironic to be recognized for doing something that is expected of any consumer company. Without going into a strategy paper or a PowerPoint presentation, the essence in customer satisfaction is really to have empathy for the customer and to have a healthy respect for someone who trusts you enough to spend money on your product. Your action will follow.
What’s the number one requirement or expectation of a Filipino car buyer that you absolutely need to satisfy?
One of my favorite phrases in life is: “Same-same but different.” That’s a phrase I picked up living in Thailand for a decade. That describes the Filipino customer, too. The Filipino consumer wants everything that other people in other country have, but they want it cheaper. That is not necessarily an unreasonable attitude, but it does exert a significant pressure on all retailers.
Tell us something interesting about Mazda customers.
Most of them name their cars. That was very insightful for me in revealing the character of a typical Mazda owner. They don’t always tell you, but if you ask, they’ll happily tell you the name. This means that for Mazda owners, a car is more than just transportation. It is a sibling, a partner, a friend. That must explain why they get traumatized or heartbroken when their car gets damaged.
As a Malaysian expat, what challenges have you experienced in the Philippine car industry?
I don’t think the challenges are any different whether I am a Malaysian expat or otherwise. This challenge applies to any automaker that is attracting first-time buyers. The Philippines auto market is going through a rapid growth, driven by a growing disposable income, accessible financing and young emerging consumers, many of whom are buying a new car for the first time. Therein lies the challenge—young, first-time consumers have a very high expectation of the products in term of quality and how they perform. Many car dealerships and distributors are unprepared for these new customers, many of whom are millennials. Millennials are the most informed and idealistic consumers today, and are often armed with more information than the dealership staff. The most successful dealerships are those who can respond and meet the needs of the millennial consumers.
When is the Philippine market hitting 500,000 sold units?
If all conditions remain the same—without extraordinary events or a major global recession—the 500,000-unit mark could happen in 2020 or sooner.
You just launched the CX-3. What is the next big thing people can expect from Mazda Philippines?
That will be the MX-5 RF (Retractable Hardtop). We’ve had people walking into our showrooms to put down a reservation to be among the first to get one. That is pretty exciting!