When Tomiko Takeuchi was appointed Mazda’s first-ever female Program Manager in 2015, she simply could not believe that – after so many years – she had landed her dream job. As Program Manager of the Mazda MX-30, the company’s first-ever fully electric production vehicle, Takeuchi would oversee the entire spectrum of developing the new model from scratch, including planning, design, marketing, logistics, sales and aftersales services. But perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised after all; creating firsts at Mazda was nothing new to her.
Takeuchi joined the company fresh out of university in Kyushu in 1997, and very quickly made an impact, becoming the company’s first female test driver after only two years.
“For someone like me, who discovered the love of driving when I got myself a car in my uni days and also happening to be a Hiroshima native, getting the job at Mazda felt only natural,” Takeuchi continues. “Then I got a transfer to work as a test driver in 1999. As it turned out, I continued evaluating production models and prototypes for ten years.”
Mazda has its own licencing system, where test drivers of varying skills and abilities are grouped into different categories starting at beginner level and extending to the master drivers at the very top. In 2004, Takeuchi received one of the top three special licences (the class A license). “And to this day, I’m still the only female test driver with that special licence,” says Takeuchi. A combination of hard work and natural ability ensured Takeuchi, who owned a Mazda Carol and a first-generation Mazda MX-5 along the way, excelled in this role.
As Takeuchi progressed through Mazda, her ten years as a test driver proved invaluable in her rise through the ranks and counts the Mazda MX-5 and Mazda2 as two models she has significant input into. Explaining the impact it had, she says: “This particular experience has allowed me to establish the essential vocabulary to evaluate the cars down to their smallest detail. I put together a detailed, in-depth report in my own words to help the engineers fine-tune the various test vehicles I have worked on into a final production model.”
This particular skillset turned out to be priceless while overseeing the development of the Mazda MX-30. With more than 1,000 staff from around the world involved in the project, it was essential for Takeuchi to communicate her ideas clearly to keep the team focused and ensure the car’s successful launch. Put simply, Takeuchi’s time as a test driver assured that she was the perfect person to manage development of Mazda’s first all-electric car.
Takeuchi felt under tremendous pressure given she would soon be entrusted with building such a historic vehicle for Mazda. But her boss was resolute that she was the person for the job, and that she had received the promotion because he knew she “wouldn’t crack under the pressure in any circumstance”. Tenacity and determination are two characteristics Takeuchi would call on regularly in the following years.
However, the MX-30 project was far from a smooth ride. “It was a particularly difficult project,” she claims. “As Mazda’s first mass-produced EV, it has no previous models that we could reference. It was literally a blank sheet of paper and we had to start from scratch,” Takeuchi explains. “There were so many changes to the design and specifications along the way that we had to go back to the drawing board over and over again. For that reason, I cannot thank the team enough. It was obvious to me that no matter how advanced car making might be these days, it’s the collective will and hard work of all the people involved that pushes through projects like the MX-30.”
Even allowing for all that hard work, it takes a special leader to inspire the team around her and this is reflected in Takeuchi’s management style. She explains: “I’d rather let the team do the talking in the meetings. It’s my conscious choice to make time to listen to what they have to say and attempt to find the best way forward for all of us. After all, I’m not an expert in every single aspect of the development. In my view, it doesn’t feel right if someone is trailblazing the way single-handedly.”
With the MX-30 arriving in showrooms in early 2021, Takeuchi may have reached one significant milestone, but her job is far from finished. Although she pays little attention to being the first female Program Manager in the history of the company, she does believe there is scope for more women to hold senior positions in the automotive industry.
She explains: “It’s important to develop cars that give kids and young people pleasure and a sense of comfort, a car they want to enjoy again and again, and I believe women have just as much experience and insight to offer in this as men.
“Cars are not just about driving from A to B anymore. It’s important to give people pleasure; that they enjoy the time they spend in their car. And if we achieve that, we’ll also have more people enjoying the time they spend driving.” Exactly the sentiment you would expect from someone whose love of being behind the wheel has come to define her.
With UK pricing for the full Mazda MX-30 range to be announced later in the year, the Mazda MX-30 First Edition can be pre-ordered now. Available with a choice of free-of-charge Ceramic Metallic or Polymetal Grey Metallic single colours, the First Edition can also be ordered with either £950 three-tone Ceramic Metallic or £1,250 three-tone Soul Red Crystal Metallic.
TEN MINUTES WITH TOMIKO TAKEUCHI…
Where are you from in Japan and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Okinoshima, where my grandparents are from, but I grew up in Hiroshima prefecture. I was really active, a real tomboy, always running around outside. In the spring or autumn breaks, I’d often go to visit my grandparents. To get there, I travelled on a Japan-made turboprop airliner, the YS-11. From a very young age, I loved the moment just before take-off, the feeling of the g-force. That was when I fell in love with transport and vehicles.
What and where did you study?
At high school I specialised in science, and at university I initially wanted to study aeronautical engineering. But a high school teacher told me I could study aircraft, cars and all kinds of transport by choosing controls and systems engineering. So that’s what I did at Kyushu Institute of Technology.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
Right now, I attend regular English classes to work on my English conversation skills. And since last year, every now and then I’ve been going to kimono dressing classes and tea ceremony classes. With the latter, I find that I feel recharged and more composed, ready to go back to work the next day. On long weekends, or when I get longer holidays, I like to go on drives or head out on my motorbike. I drive an MX-5, which I bought in 1999. It was the MX-5’s tenth anniversary that year and owners from around Japan got together. I never forgot their smiles, so I ended up buying an MX-5 too.
What was your first role at Mazda?
When I first started at Mazda, I was placed in the electronics technology development division to work on a wiring harness design. My team designed the wiring across the entire car. By being involved in that, I got to know the car’s many technologies and parts, and was able to work with different people, building good working relationships.
In 1999 you became a test driver evaluating cars. How did that move come about?
I always really enjoyed driving, so I always dreamt of working in the experiment and research division. At the time, there were more and more female test drivers, so I applied for the job.
How has your experience at the test track helped in your latest role, as program manager of the MX-30?
There are many reasons that being a test driver helped in my role as MX-30 program manager. The MX-30 is a global model, so many colleagues from inside and outside Mazda [in Japan] offered their support. And because I’d been a test driver, I was able to communicate my vision for the MX-30 using my own words. My experience as a test driver helped me in those ways.
What are you particularly proud of on the MX-30?
More than anything, I’m proud of my team. The development period was longer than usual for the MX-30. In that time, they never gave up working towards the goal of producing Mazda’s first all-electric vehicle. What is the product concept of MX-30? ‘To be natural’. When it came to working on the car, I decided to really let go and relax. It wasn’t just me taking on this project, I was going on a journey with my team. I encouraged them to be themselves while developing this product, so the concept of ‘being natural’ reflects naturally in the MX-30.
What would you like customers to feel about the MX-30?
The world is a busy place, and we all face challenges and stresses every day. When our customers look at the MX-30, and touch it, and get in it, I would hope they feel relaxed and composed. I want them to experience that kind of space and time. Once they feel relaxed, I hope they can experience the pure joy of driving.