Mazda taps Americas head as CEO to raise game in its biggest market

TOKYO (Reuters) - Mazda Motor Corp 7261.T has named the head of its Americas operations as its next president and CEO after its current chief steps down in June, as Japan's fifth-largest automaker seeks to boost profitability in North America, its biggest market.

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The company said on Friday that Masamichi Kogai will step down and be replaced by current vice president Akira Marumoto who now oversees operations in the Americas. The changes are effective June 26 after Mazda’s annual shareholders’ meeting.

Mazda, which has global annual sales of around 1.6 million vehicles, has enjoyed a run of rising vehicle sales, expanding in markets particularly in North America, its biggest market which accounts for nearly 30 percent of total sales.

But as one of Japan’s smaller automakers and a tiny player globally, it faces growing competition in the United States, where market growth has slowed, and where the company’s profitability has sagged due to higher discounting and slowing demand for sedans.

The maker of the MX-5 Miata roadster and the reputed Skyactiv gasoline engines also faces higher costs to stay competitive in an industry which is being disrupted by new technologies, including self-driving cars and electric vehicles.

Marumoto, a 38-year company veteran with a background in engineering who described himself as having a “strict” work ethic and admitted to being “short-tempered” at times, previously led Mazda’s corporate planning and product strategy divisions before heading its Americas operations.

He said that growing sales and improving profitability in the North American market would be his biggest priority, along with expanding the company’s brand image as an innovative car maker.

“Given the rapid changes occurring in the auto industry at the moment it’s often asked whether a small company like us will be OK,” Marumoto, 60, told reporters at a briefing in Tokyo.

“But before we even consider this we need to show our strengths, and what makes us different if we want to grow our brand.”

Kogai, who became Mazda’s president and CEO in 2013, will be following the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors who also held the top job for five years each. He will still be with the automaker and become its chairman, the company said.

Earlier this year, Mazda announced that it would invest in a new, $1.6 billion plant in the U.S. state of Alabama as a joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T.

Mazda and Toyota are jointly developing affordable electric vehicles, pooling resources to better compete in the race for new car technologies. As part of this partnership announced last year, Toyota has taken a 5 percent stake in its smaller rival.

Last month, Mazda forecast a 28 percent drop in full-year operating profit, hurt by a stronger yen as well as higher spending.

Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Muralikumar Anantharaman