Marketing execs depart amid Kia, Mazda changes

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Ron Neale resigned suddenly from his post as marketing director of Mazda North American Operations as management churn hit two major car importers last week. Executives close to Kia Motors America said VP-Marketing Jim Sanfilippo was let go in a cost-cutting move involving 20 staffers.

"I'm officially on vacation," said Mr. Sanfilippo, who declined further comment when reached at home. A Kia spokesman said he didn't know if the marketing VP would return from vacation.

Dick Macedo, exec VP-sales and marketing at Kia, speaking generally about last month's staff cuts, said they were necessary to make the carmaker's U.S. operations profitable and to promote operational efficiency.

BRANDS IN TRANSITION

The moves come as both car brands are in transition.

Mazda has struggled to find a clear positioning. In the auto industry's best year ever, the carmaker sold 243,708 units in 1999, up only 1.3% from the 240,547 recorded in 1998 by Automotive News.

Steve Odell, Mazda's VP-marketing and sales since December, was unavailable for comment last week. But in an earlier interview, he acknowledged that Mazda needs to carve out a niche. "We're going to dedicate more resources, not necessarily more spending, communicating what the brand is." He added upcoming brand advertising this spring from Doner, Southfield, Mich., will take a new direction.

Indeed, Mazda's new TV spots will dump the "Mazda World" created by special effects, according to an executive close to the marketer who asked not to be identified.

Mr. Neale had been with Mazda for more than 15 years in regional and corporate management jobs in operations and marketing. He was promoted to marketing director in 1996 from Gulf states regional marketing manager.

He could not be reached at his unlisted home phone. A Mazda spokesman said he didn't know why Mr. Neale left.

MAZDA TAPS SIMMONS

Mr. Neale's successor is Kristen Simmons, 32, who joined Mazda last summer as group manager-brand strategy and communications. "Kristen has the talent and energy to effectively motivate her team to launch the new 2001 Mazda Tribute SUV while laying the groundwork for a revitalized marketing campaign that will further strengthen the Mazda brand and increase awareness for our entire line of products," Mr. Odell said in a prepared statement last week.

As for Kia, the company finished its national rollout last year and will double its product lineup to four in coming months. Kia's first minivan, the Sedona, is due in 2002. Mr. Macedo projected unit sales this year would grow to 160,000, up 18.5% from 1999. Kia sold 19,535 vehicles in January-February, up 21% from the same period in 1999.

The marketer's new ad agency, David & Goliath, Los Angeles, is readying its first work. Two TV spots for the new Spectra sedan are due in April and ads for its other new small sedan, the Rio, arrive this summer. Commercials for the Sportage SUV are expected to feature Curt LeDuc and Darren Skilton, Kia-sponsored drivers in the grueling 4,000-mile Paris to Cairo race.

`COME A LONG WAY'

Mr. Sanfilippo helped plot Kia's U.S. entry in 1992 with the late Greg Warner. At that time, Mr. Sanfilippo was exec VP at Bates USA West, Irvine, Calif., on the Hyundai Motor America account, where Mr. Warner had been his client. Mr. Warner was Kia's chief operating officer until his death in March 1998.

Kim Ahn, president-CEO of Kia in the U.S., said parent Kia Motors Corp., Seoul, went from receivership to profits of $160 million last year. "We've come a long way locally, nationally and internationally."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo.

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