KONEN SUZUKI FORD'S MAIN MAN IN JAPAN IS GEARING UP FOR GROWTH

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Konen Suzuki is traveling down a different road than he imagined when he joined the then-modest Toyota Motor Sales Co. 32 years ago.

Now at the helm of not only a rival but a non-Japanese one, Mr. Suzuki, 55, is steering Ford Japan to a leadership position among auto importers at a timewhen foreign cars are starting to capture the hearts and pocketbooks of the Japanese.

Imports account for only about 3% of auto sales in Japan, but that percentage could rise if the Japanese government gives in to U.S. pressure to ease trade barriers.

In his three years as Ford Japan president, Mr. Suzuki has been laying the groundwork for expansion, primarily by improving distribution. Then last month, Ford started running a very unusual, primarily TV campaign handled by J. Walter Thompson Japan and Dentsu, both Tokyo. The goal is to make the Japanese comfortable with the relatively unfamiliar Ford nameplate; each spot ends with a real customer saying, "This is my first Ford."

Mr. Suzuki will also oversee the mid-May reintroduction of the Mustang after a 10-year absence. In 1993, Ford sold about 5,000 autos in Japan, about double the previous year. For '94, Mr. Suzuki wants to triple that figure.

Mr. Suzuki joined Toyota in 1962, fresh out of Tokyo University. At the time, Toyota produced about 17,000 vehicles annually, a tiny percentage of today's 4.4 million. Mr. Suzuki was dispatched to the U.S. to learn car advertising. He recalls: "No one in Japan, not even in the advertising agencies, knew much about advertising cars in those days."

The following year, Mr. Suzuki returned to Japan as an assistant section manager in marketing. Soon, he faced his first challenge. Toyota's main seller was the Crown Salon CX, a favorite of corporate executives and government officials. Mr. Suzuki's job was to woo ordinary consumers while retaining loyal customers. He had the car produced in white, to contrast with the black favored for official use, and an nounced the new color in a simple, multi media campaign. Toyota's market share in Japan jumped from 42% to an all-time high of 70% within three years.

By 1972, as senior executive coordinator for sales and marketing at Toyota's U.S. unit, Mr. Suzuki tapped Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, New York. The agency, since merged into Saatchi & Saatchi, helped take a car with an image of cheap price and cheap quality to one of high quality at a reasonable price. In his nine-year watch, Toyota's U.S. sales tripled to about 600,000.

Mr. Suzuki returned to Japan in 1981 but, despite promotions, missed the hands-on roles of earlier posts. He re signed in 1989 to join a major Toyota dealership as senior managing director. Two years later, Ford Japan beckoned.

"I felt-even when I was at Toyota-there should be a big opportunity for U.S. manufacturers if they did the right thing," Mr. Suzuki says. "U.S. autos had been improving steadily and are now very good. But neither the consumer nor the U.S. manufacturers themselves had actually realized this."

So Mr. Suzuki came on board, trading in his Toyota Crown for a Lincoln Continental.

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