Error parsing XSLT file: \xslt\FacebookOpenGraph.xslt The BusinessCar Interview: Steve Tomlinson, Mazda
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The BusinessCar Interview: Steve Tomlinson, Mazda

Date: 16 December 2016   |   Author: Debbie Wood

It's been a successful few years for Mazda: since 2012, the Japanese car manufacturer's growth rate has been two to three times faster than the industry, it has passed the five million mark in terms of the total number of cars sold globally, and last year the firm celebrated its best-ever UK performance in terms of registrations.

Steve Tomlinson, Mazda UK's head of fleet, expects sales for 2016 to mirror that of 2015, but admits that a cautious approach to planning is essential for the years to come, especially given the unknown effects of Brexit, which are yet to have an impact.

"We're taking a very prudent approach to planning. I think the industry is forecasted for a decline. Although it's been buoyant for the past few years there is now a realisation that the impact of Brexit will start to slow the industry down," he tells BusinessCar. "If the market holds up and we see opportunity then we will look to build on it, but we won't be doing ourselves any favours by setting a plan with too high expectations."

Many manufacturers have already put their prices up, and although Mazda has avoided doing it so far, Tomlinson admits the firm may have no choice but to follow suit if the trend continues.


"There are significantly bigger players in the market and if they decide to put their prices up then we may be forced to follow suit. But as things stand there are no immediate plans to increase prices - we see it very much as carry on as normal and see what happens because, really, nobody knows. We will let the market dictate what we do."

Mazda has always performed well in fleet but it was the launch of the CX-5, now the firm's best-selling SUV in Europe, which became the real turning point.

"It's fantastic. Going back to when the CX-5 was launched in 2012 and SkyActiv [fuel-efficiency technology] was introduced, it changed the direction not only in terms of styling but also technology," says Tomlinson. "We'd never had a credible SUV before and that changed the game for us - not only for retail but from a fleet perspective too."

According to Tomlinson, when the CX-5 was launched it was the only car in its segment to offer a 150hp diesel engine with CO2 emissions below 120g/km. That balance between power and low emissions has proved very successful for Mazda and meant the company essentially went from being a one-car fleet brand with the 6 to having a two-car corporate offering.


Today, with the reinvigorated 3 and the new CX-3 compact SUV proving popular, the manufacturer now has four credible fleet options.

"I'm really pleased with the Mazda 3. It's always been a good car, but it perhaps hasn't been the most fuel-efficient or the lowest-CO2, and today it isn't, but it's very competitive and it really looks nice. I think kerb appeal shouldn't be underestimated," says Tomlinson.

"I'm sure we will continue to strive to improve the quality and desirability of our products because we want to be a brand of choice. We want Mazda to always be on the consideration list."

Improving combustion engines

With so many car manufacturers launching electric vehicles and investing in plug-in hybrid technology, it's quite refreshing to talk with one that has its sights firmly set on getting the best out of its petrol and diesel line-up.

Mazda's SkyActiv technology refers to a range of innovations made to the engines and transmissions, the use of lightweight chassis components, and adjustments to the cars' aerodynamics to enable the use of larger and more powerful engines while keeping running costs impressively low.

And that focus on getting the best out of the firm's petrol and diesel engines will remain key moving forwards, as Mazda has no plans to introduce a plug-in hybrid or electric car in the near future.

"Our engineers are focusing on getting the best out of our combustion engines and there
must be a belief that there is more that we can do. They still feel there's a long way to go in terms of gains in efficiency and performance. It's not dead by a long shot," Tomlinson says.

2017 Mazda 6_SDN_Action (5)

"Over time, who knows? Petrol-hybrid is popular with certain brands. Long term, I'm not really sure where it will go."

According to Tomlinson, Mazda doesn't shout loud enough about its low-CO2 message, and the 6 is, in fact, one of the few diesel cars to meet Euro6 standards without needing selective catalytic reduction technology.

The next-generation of SkyActiv is coming too, which will deliver further efficiency gains. However, Mazda is staying tight-lipped about when it will be introduced across the line-up.  

As is the case with many manufacturers, Mazda puts a very high importance on protecting its residual values, and the firm is keen to avoid offering customers large discounts and doing too much short-term rental business, which accounts for around 11% of the brand's fleet sales.

"We don't want to do really cheap. We want to look after our residuals as best we can, and throwing large discounts at our cars isn't going to help that. It's only right that people pay a fair price for a good product," says Tomlinson.

He adds that residual values are also driven by the sector the car sits in, and if that declines, it will ultimately have an impact on Mazda's RVs too: "RVs are massively important and we do our best to ensure that when we launch a new model we focus on the residuals of the outgoing car and also the value of the incoming.

For a small manufacturer, whilst our RVs stand up very well, it's very sector-driven - if the sector declines, our RVs may also suffer as a result."

Raising awareness

Tomlinson's team is currently made up of four regional corporate sales managers, with a fifth joining shortly, and two contract hire managers who manage the relationships between Mazda and the leasing companies.

A bespoke approach to managing customer requirements is essential for growth and the team tries to ensure that each fleet customer receives a tailored approach depending on their requirements.

"We don't take a standard approach to our customers - we tailor our approach to every single one. We try to be as bespoke as possible, which means that our team is very proficient at what they do. They are fleet professionals. We couldn't just employ anybody to do the job - they need to understand the industry and our customer requirements well," says Mazda's fleet boss.

"A lot of our success has not only been in product, but [also], from a fleet perspective, the way that we try and make it easier for our dealers and customers to deal with us. We don't, for example, ask our customers for fleet terms - we streamlined that process some time ago."

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Most of Mazda's fleet business is acquired through user-choosers, and Tomlinson believes that the decision process is much closer to retail these days: "My view on a company car driver's decision is that once they understand what the stipulations are, the decision is based upon what they would buy if they were paying for it themselves. So it's a retail purchase, but somebody else is paying for it.  That's where we focus our energies in our marketing activity."

Around 20% of Mazda's fleet business is in Motability, which has helped improve the awareness of the brand, something that is a key priority for the firm moving forwards.

"Motability is a good channel in terms of supporting network profitability and generating used cars," he says. "Essentially, it's a retail purchase, and although it's an expensive channel to operate in, actually it's good awareness and generates footfall in the showroom."

Getting more fleets to appraise the brand is a key challenge for the fleet team, and although marketing budgets are small, according to Tomlinson, Mazda sweats them hard to get in front of as many people as possible.

"Our biggest challenge is getting the message across about how good our products are and how easy we are to do business with. We genuinely believe, and I'm sure most manufacturers would say it, that getting bums on seats sells cars. Mazda is worthy of selling a lot more than what we currently sell and that is the belief of everybody in the business.

"I would love to see the awareness of our brand increase, and if that happens it would make delivering our plans much easier."