As much as cars are a passion to many, running the business is often better done by people who are businessmen first and maybe car people second, or third. A business is a business, and sometimes to get the hard numbers, you need an impassionate lot to get the job done. Dato’ Sri Ben Yeoh is no different. After all it was under his leadership which saw the Mazda brand rise from being a small time player, to one of the biggest car brands in Malaysia today.
A veteran of the automotive industry, Yeoh is one of the most respected figures in the business, only that he also happens to be a car guy at heart. This became evident during the launch of the fourth-generation MX-5, where his first statement before any questions were asked at the conference was “If you are going to ask about how many cars we plan to sell this year, I will tell you now that I don’t know,” he said without hesitation to members of the media assembled before him.
Of course, being in the business and serving as the executive director of Bermaz Motor, Yeoh does have a certain level of expectation and targets for the brand as a whole and the MX-5 in the back of his mind. But today, there was no time for that, today he wanted to talk about the MX-5, Mazda in Malaysia, and the enthusiasm and passion for car and brand. Things that he keeps close to his heart.
Normally a rule of thumb for a car launch is that the level of pomp and circumstance is correlated to the expected volume and popularity of the new model in the company’s sales charts. When it comes to volume sellers that will sell by the hundreds a month, most car companies would pull no stops to put on an impressive show for guests and customers to gawk at their latest success story in the making.
Putting up a launch costs money, and it is better for the car to pay for its introduction back in the first week preferably, rather than first half of the decade. The MX-5 has been known to be a small player, even in the sports car market, and in the past few years Bermaz Motor only managed to sell a handful of the little roadsters due to its high price.
Yeoh himself said that they aren’t making much profit from sales of the MX-5, adding that the MX-5 serves as the icon to the brand, a representation of what Mazda stands for.
Nevertheless for the launch of the MX-5 was exceptional. Yeoh invited the members of the MX-5 owners club, and going the extra mile to arrange a police escort to accompany the convoy of MX-5s to the launch party. Personnel from Mazda Philippines were also flown in to witness the unveiling of the new roadster at the company headquarters in Glenmaire. Some regard it as the brand’s biggest launch of the year, all for a car that isn’t expected to sell in huge numbers.
At the press conference Yeoh talked passionately about his personal experiences with the new MX-5 at a drive in Philippines and how the Japanese engineers went through great lengths to optimise the car’s weight distribution, air flow around the cabin, and driving experience.
Yeoh shared plenty of tidbits on the MX-5 such as how the engineers managed to modify the Skyactiv-G engine block to be lighter. Extolling the stitching of the seats that joins the leather upholstery together to deliver an extra cushioning effect, and describing how the shape of the bonnet give drivers the impression of driving a single-seater race car. Nothing of that conference felt like it was rehearsed from a corporate communications script.
Yeoh also shared his plans of starting up a dedicated clubhouse for Mazda owners where they could host events and meet-ups. “Car owners like to come together for a ‘the-tarik’ session to share their passion and interests, so we want to encourage that by setting up a place where owners can come together in a comfortable place,” he added. “Right now we are looking at a place nearby our headquarters and it must be next to a mamak, of course.”
When asked about organising track days, Yeoh laments the rising cost of rental rates that the Sepang International Circuit, pointing out that the costs of hosting an event at the circuit can easily exceed the company’s own marketing budget.
“Our biggest mistake (as a nation) is that we shouldn’t have lost the Batu Tiga circuit,” he said, referencing the old Shah Alam Batu Tiga Speedway circuit which played host to numerous world class racing events. The circuit was closed in 2003 and sold by the Selangor state government to a property developer who turned it into a luxury housing development. To many in the local motorsports scene, the loss of Batu Tiga presented a huge blow to the growing motorsports scene in Malaysia. A sentiment shared by many, but rarely expressed so openly.
The business of selling cars is a cut throat game of tight margins and fierce competition. And Yeoh is a rare breed of business leaders in the automotive industry, one who manages to temper his personal passion for cars with his business acumen. It is little wonder why he is highly regarded in his field, and as brands are often reflective of the leadership, there is no better person to bring Mazda back into prominence.