Trevor Mann - Mitsubishi’s great driver of global growth and supplier sustainability

Mitsubishi showed an exciting SUV concept at the Geneva International Motor Show where Simon Duval Smith caught up with Trevor Mann for what turned out to be his last interview as COO of the carmaker

The concept car at the show, the Engelberg Tourer, is said to offer ‘enhanced EV performance’ but it was not immediately clear whether it would be a pure electric or a hybrid. Trevor Mann tells me more about the company’s vision of future mobility at Mitsubishi; and about its plans for more electric or more intelligent and adaptable hybrids. "The purpose of this car is to show the overall direction of us as a manufacturer and how it is more than a concept in terms of capability. The Engleberg has the capability to do 70 kilometres autonomous drive on pure battery power and this is combined with the petrol power to give more than 700 kilometres of range. We are saying with this car that this is not a dream, based on where we are today with existing technology on the current Outlander PHEV, but moving on a little more. Nevertheless, that level of performance is pretty impressive, and it delivers less than 50 grams of CO2 on WLTP. Our statement is that yes, it is a concept car but the technology is real.”

More than just a vehicle

“The second message is that we are saying that it is more than just a car; because of its battery pack and its bi-directional charging system which can take power from your house but also put power into the home. And, with what we are calling the Dendo Drive House [Dendo is Japanese for electric] we can help electrification systems [local and national power grids] by smoothing supply and demand and allowing the customer to make best use of cheaper [off-peak] or free [from solar panels installed in the home] electricity. One can use this system to balance the ebbs and flows of power and thus get the best economies from the system. What we are saying with the Engleberg is that this technology is valid, very robust and proven, and is necessary in today's climate for meeting the customer's driving requirements, CO2 performance, and the extension of this is the connection to the customer's home."

A concerted effort to connect mobility power

Several carmakers have talked of intrgating vehicles’ power sources and second use batteries into the hoe and I question Mann as to who is going to push this type of technology usage forward - will it be a union of EV makers putting pressure on local and national governments and housebuilders - does he think that it has to be a concerted effort?

He sees it as less of a challenge and more of an opportunity. "Yes, it has to be a concerted effort but also there are a number of third party people who are looking at this as a business model so I don't think an OEM would do it all themselves.

“An OEM could join a conglomerate or it could do it using an outsourcing model, using third party providers for certain parts of the system but the challenge that we have discussed internally and what we are working on is how to make that seamless from a customer point of view, so the coordination would have to come from a central source."

Platform sharing within the Alliance

With the departure of Carlos Ghosn and several of his best ‘lieutenants’, and Nissan’s much-rumoured desire to take more control of its destiny, and possibly engineer a dismantling of the Renaul-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, I ask Mann if the platforms for future Mitsubishis would be shared with Alliance partner; he says certain commitments have already been made: "We have given commitments on platforms so we are actively working with the other Alliance partners on platform strategies for mid-size and small-size cars; they were the first two segments that we have chosen to work and we are well advanced with these programmes. Our first vehicles based on Alliance platforms will come out in 2021, we have not been definite about the timing but it will around that time. The plug-in hybrid technology is MMC's proprietary technology so we are using that but we have commitments from both Renault and Nissan; they would also like to use that tech so they are supporting the kaizen development of the system to meet future needs and we are co-developing that, based on MMC's original technology."

Compact SUVs - finding the sweet spot in a very competitive segment

The Geneva show saw Mazda launch their compact SUV - the CX-3. This segment is very competitive and also very profitable, witness the success of the Qashqai. I wondered how will Mitsubishi compete in the segment - does Mann see a Mitsubishi compact SUV as being able to offer more technology/sport/hybrid or EV technology to complement the Qashqai and Renault offerings and does he see that segment as a real 'sweet spot' in a range of vehicles? "I think so, MMC is fundamentally an SUV maker, we have the heritage, the background, the technology and I think we still have something to offer. Currently we have a line up of three SUVs: Outlander, Eclipse Cross and ASX. In the future we want to better define the positions of these three, relative to each other. We imagine that the next Outlander will be bigger than the current model, maybe the next Eclipse Cross will be slightly bigger but not a lot, and the new ASX will probably be smaller than the current vehicle. That will give clearer definition between the three." 

The ASX sits slightly between two segments and has had to plough its own, quite successful, sales furrow as Mann tells me. "It has been a very strong performer for us, it is our number three global best seller, we made a big refresh of it which we are showing here at Geneva, with fresh and dynamic front and rear aspects, that I think Kunimoto-san [Mitsubishi design chief Tsunehiro Kunimoto] has done a really good job on." I suggest that Mann would like to bring the ASX more into line with Qashqai dimensions and he says, "The next generation will be smaller," but he won't be drawn on comparing ASX with the Nisan offering.

On track for greater profits and reduced costs

When I last talked to Trevor Mann, he spoke of a ‘V’-shaped recovery at Mitsubishi, although ostensibly the company was in quite good shape. Where does he feel the carmaker is now in terms of sales and product? "We are on track. As I said a year ago when we last spoke, we were aiming for a 30% increase in sales, a 30% increase in revenue, positive free cash and a 6% margin. Our volume and our revenues have grown in line with that forecast, arguably almost one year ahead of the plan and we will produce about 1.25 million units this year [2019] which is a fraction short of the 1.3 million projected. Our revenues are up more than 30% and we have generated positive free cash every year so far. The margin is on track to what we would expect but we have had a number of headwinds such as foreign exchange rate shifts, which have impacted us." 

Mann says that he has saved money too: " We have reduced our costs, we have worked with our Alliance partners Renault and Nissan and we have got some synergistic cost reductions that have helped us. This has included rationalising some of the supply base both ways and benchmarking both ways; Mitsubishi has a lot to show its Alliance partners. We have worked together to reduce logistics costs, and more."

Driving for growth and possible new production locations

Man and I have discussed the OEM’s DRIVE FOR GROWTH plan and the possibility of building cars in or close to Europe with plants such as Sunderland in the UK or other Alliance plants in Europe in the past and I wondered how flexible he and the Mitsubishi management - and the Alliance boards are on considering alternative manufacturing footprint locations. He says this is a logical possibility that at some time in the future, that it could happen. “It won't happen tomorrow for two reasons. One is that we still have existing capacity of our own, we want to make sure we are utilising that capacity as fully as possible. Even though we have done very well with this over the last three years, we are still at around 90% utilisation. We still have the opportunity for further growth but as you well know, utilisation is not flat; we have some plants running at over 100% and some that are substantially less.

“The other factor that we must consider is that we must achieve a critical mass in markets that we would want to localise for. Even though you might not have to build a factory to service a strong sales territory; you might be able to use an Alliance asset. In order to justify developing unique tooling, you need the critical mass. I would want to see two to three years of healthy sales growth to justify the investment. Building close to sales markets is something that is always in one's mind but we would want to make sure that we were not running before we could walk."

Africa - an exciting new territory for sales and production?

North Africa is starting to like like a strong sales and production region, with Renault particularly having a strong production and sales footprint there and Mann says that the region is definitely interesting for Mitsubishi. "We have had some early discussions about Egypt, we already import into Egypt but we have some talks about using Nissan's asset there. Algeria has been closed to non-domestic produced vehicles, Renault got in there at the right time; it could be a country of interest for us." He is conscious of the risk of over-stretching resources though, "We can't fight on every corner, we have to make sure we deliver the DRIVE FOR GROWTH plan and that we solidify the bedrock of the business, which for us is ASEAN but we continue to grow as much everywhere else, without distracting from the mid-term plan and making sure that we are a stronger and more robust company for when we would launch the next mid-term plan."

Investing and profiting in the US and China

The US has been a tough but quite profitable market for Mitsubishi in the past and with its advanced technology offerings starting to chime with vehicle buyers awareness of and desire for cleaner and more economical vehicles while still wanting to drive an SUV, the carmaker should be hitting a 'sweet spot' with US buyers. I ask Mann for his thoughts about the future of Mitsubishi there; will it be driven by more EV and hybrid technology, more luxury, or more performance offerings? He says that he is quite happy with the sales performance of the PHEV Outlander. "The PHEV Outlander is doing quite well, we are happy with its sales. I think the US market will continue to develop; it is under a lot of pressure at present with high incentives and a dramatic demand shift from sedans to SUVs. Our level of incentives has reduced but we have grown there, partly because of new model introductions and partly due to the development work we are doing with our sales network. “The US is not our number one priority, based on our mid-term plan, it is one of what we call our focus markets, along with China." Mention of China leads us on to the comparison between the two regions and Mann says that he spends equal time in the two regions. "We have grown more in China, partly due to our greater investment there to localise the Outlander, which we did about two years ago, and now we have localised the Eclipse Cross as well. Last year we grew 70% in China, we have seen continued growth this year but not as much."

Expanding markets for Expander and Eclipse Cross

The new Expander and Eclipse Cross has been well received but I put it to Mann that it is not available as globally as he might wish; what are his thoughts on rolling them out to more markets? He says that Expander is an interesting vehicle from a global sales point of view. "People are looking at it and saying 'I want it' in many markets around the world. It was engineered mainly for the ASEAN market so to make it compliant for other markets we must do some work on it. We have been taking the car to various countries and holding customer clinics to gauge what buyers want. In the countries that do not need any regulatory adjustments, we are rolling it out as quickly as we can. We are currently in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, some Latin America countries, Egypt and a few others." Expander is a remarkable success story, as Mann tells me: " We entered what is probably the most competitive small MPV segment market in the world - Indonesia - where we had no presence, and we have ended up being number one in share and in pricing power. By this I mean that an Expander is more expensive than the competition but we are still number one. “We know we have got something special with the Expander, every now and then you get a surprise in life; we knew we had a great car in Expander and we are determined to keep it 'sweet'."

A two-way conversation and innovation - what Mitsubishi wants from suppliers

With the great leaps forward that Mann has achieved in sales and cost cutting, one might be tempted to assume that he is looking for cost cuts across all the supply chain but he says that innovation and innovative cost control is what he is seeking from vendors. "Personally I would like to see more ideas from suppliers, more innovation, and more cost reduction from their point of view. This means technology innovation and cost innovation. This is because I think some OEMs, in my experience, do not listen closely enough to suppliers to hear their ideas for cost reduction. So I would like suppliers be a bit more pushy on innovation - tech innovation and cost. This is a two-way street, as OEMs we must listen as well as dictating terms and specifications. I would also like them [suppliers] to be flexible. I know what the landscape looks like to a supplier; if they add up all the OEM volumes, the global TIV would be around 150 million but in fact it is not that size. Mitsubishi's recent performance is a good example that might help one judge whether an OEM has credibility in its volume forecasts, because if you were to look at the last three years we have that credibility but even we have been caught out from time to time. So flexibility in supply is another essential component of what will make a successful Mitsubishi supplier."

Supplier security through balancing revenue and cost

Mitsubishi has traditionally offered fairly generous length contracts in the past, due in part to the longevity of its models. This has given vendors a certain amount of security and reassurance and I ask Mann if he is considering extending contracts even further for certain components and systems? He says that allocation of contracts is of course based on the expected model life. "Mitsubishi has had a longer than average model life; what we need to do is to make sure we balance the model life, in two ways. If we run a long model life the advantage on the supply side of the business is that one gains much more cost amortisation of vendor tooling but, towards the end of a model’s life, on the commercial side of it, one loses due to having to spend more Variable Marketing Expense (VME) because you have an older vehicle to sell. So we have to make sure that we have the right balance to keep our offering fresh.

“Another important element of the industry is that it is moving more rapidly than ever, partly driven by the Chinese brands that are refreshing their models with much quicker frequency. Then the message or question is, how can we carry over and carry across great product features? I don't think there is a right or wrong answer; one has to look at the business with a holistic view and that means not just cost - it means revenue as well.” 

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