Home Editors' Picks The Velocity Q&A: Steven Tan (President and CEO Mazda Philippines)

The Velocity Q&A: Steven Tan (President and CEO Mazda Philippines)

Interview by Kap Maceda Aguila

THE INTENSE sunlight beams down on the asphalt of the Clark International Speedway. This means it’s a good day, without a hint of precipitation, to race — never mind that spectators and drivers alike are cooking in the searing heat.

Soaking in the sights, din of revving engines, and the excited babble of attendees is a grinning Steven Tan. He dons a white cap emblazoned with the logos of corporate sponsors, and “MSCC (or Manila Sports Car Club) MIATA SPEC SERIES.” It’s the inaugural leg of the four stages to be held this year, and Race 1 is nearing flag-off. Alternating races with the long Miata Cup series today, there are lots of people who have made the trip to the country’s premier track to witness real wheel-to-wheel action.

Twenty similarly appointed and equipped Mazda MX-5s are freed of their soft tops for the run. “This is a dream come true not just for us at Mazda Philippines, but for the Manila Sports Car Club as well,” shares Mr. Tan.

Under the hood of the MSCC Miata Spec Series MX-5 is a stock 181hp, 2.0-liter Skyactiv-G engine mated to a six-speed Skyactiv manual. Suspension components have been swapped with Cusco-branded sports coilovers and given chassis braces. To enable the engine to breathe more freely and to give it a racier note, Drift Xaust fits a custom stainless steel exhaust system. Completing the slew of performance and safety enhancements are a Sparco competition tiller, racing seat, harness, and safety net. A Cusco racing roll cage also provides additional protection. All the cars roll on GT Radial Champiro SX2 tires affixed to custom 17×8.0 J Rota Strike wheels. Pilipinas Shell is the official fuel and lubricant sponsor.

Race 1 is won by Allan Uy’s #99. He is joined on the podium by Paul Henderson Perez in #77 and Angie King in #12. As the sun starts to climb down, Race 2 offers some respite, but Mr. Uy presses on for another win. Ms. King notches second; Juha Turalba in #12 completes the top three. The fastest lap time is also achieved by Mr. Uy, who completes the circuit in 2.19 minutes — averaging 108kph.

The next rounds are set on Aug. 27 (Races 3 and 4), Oct. 22 (Races 5 and 6), and Nov. 26 (Races 7 and 8) — all at the Clark International Speedway. Always in the middle of the action, Mr. Tan talks to us exclusively after attending to a series of “taxi rides” aboard the competition MX-5s.

Here are excerpts of our interview with the Mazda Philippines head.

VELOCITY: How do you differentiate the MSCC Miata Spec Series and the Miata Cup?

Steven Tan: Well, they work together very well. The Miata Cup has been in existence for 15 years now. It’s part of the genetics of the Miata Club. If you have a Miata, then you’d naturally want to have a track day. It’s the same everywhere around the world. They always have a track day or a fun run. The formula here is that the MSCC Miata Spec Series is a one-make race where all the cars are identical — same power, engine, transmission. We collaborated with Cusco and Sparco to build out a really high-quality car that is good on the track and on the road. It has a kind of a dual personality. It’s very fast and it will run with the best of the best in that category. But it’s also very nice to drive on the road.

The Miata Club is 25 years old this year, and the Miata Cup is made up of different generations of the model, so you can’t really go one make with that. But I think what makes me the most fulfilled is that both cups are running on the same day, just on different grids. There’s a lot of camaraderie and festivities around today’s event.

The Miata Club is probably one of the strongest car clubs in the Philippines. As far as Filipinos go, the fascination with the Miata or MX-5 is strong as well. Why do you think that is?

The Miata Club Philippines has been extremely resilient. Twenty-five years, and it’s thriving. There’s cohesiveness.

So how many members are there now?

They have maybe 150, 160 active members, and every year, new members come in. They are being looked after by a very strong group of what they call the council presidents. That becomes the institutional knowledge or memory about how the club DNA should be… I think the secret to the longevity of the club is that it is very strong — again, guidance, and a constitution. Plus, the car itself has remained relatively unchanged in its personality, bringing people together through camaraderie and happiness. What comes to mind is the joy of driving.

Mazda Philippines has traditionally been very close to the club, so it’s a two-way street, too.

I came in 10 years ago, so this year would be our 10th anniversary and my 10th year in the Philippines. I immediately engaged the club because I feel that engagement with the users or customers is really important. We are the kind of brand that tries on engagement, enjoyment of the product — getting together and sharing the same experience. The Miata Cup and the MSCC Miata Spec Series are extensions; parts of the journey. It’s part of evangelizing the brand to a different group of people.

So what makes the Miata popular here? It’s counterintuitive in a way because of the hot climate we have, and our penchant for acquiring bigger SUVs.

Why would the Miata be so popular? Like you said, it’s a two-door — two seats, open top, small. I will say: not practical, right? But it’s extremely successful here. You know, the Philippines has the honor of having the largest Miata population outside Japan — I mean, in all the countries that we have that including even China.

Does that surprise Mazda? Does that surprise you?

It surprised Mazda. But if you’re here and you understand the culture of people who have cars, it shouldn’t. We love sports car, and we talk about cars all the time. So get a group of people together, especially young boys or guys together. They may talk about other things, but eventually everything comes out that a car is not just a mobility device to get from point A to point B. It’s an expression of who you are, what your life is like and what your values are. The goal is not to have the fastest car or even the best-looking car. It’s just about who I am and what my car is. So in terms of the Miata, a lot of people you know say, “This is who I am.” It’s not supposed to be an expensive sports car, and it’s easy to maintain.

Mazda is also known for its sustainability efforts. The company is working on being carbon-neutral, and is working on developing sustainable fuels. And of course, we’re also aware that you have an electrified or electric vehicle that has won awards out there. Do you have a timetable for bringing it in? Maybe that’s the question.

We don’t have a firm timetable. I think electrification is such a buzzword today, but there are lots of other structural elements that need to be in place in order to make electrification a practical thing. I think ultimately, the direction will be electrification in whatever form it is. It could be EV (electric vehicle), it could be plug-in hybrid, it could be a mild hybrid. But all the other pieces that come together in terms of like, what’s the source of energy. Is it green? Is it fossil fuel? Is it solar power? On our side, it’s also important for each company to take a position and say, what we are doing is part of the conversation about where we are going in terms of, you know, the tipping point two degrees Celsius.

Mazda has already declared that by 2035 its plants will be carbon-neutral.

Yes. I’m really glad about that. But even here, in collaboration with Shell, our partner in 2020, we’ve completely net-offed our carbon emission for our company fleet. They help us do that. They came to us and asked, “Would you want to be a partner?” We said yes, we are the first automaker in this country that said, okay, we have that many cars that we used in 2020… So every time we pump gas, they register how many BTUs and so they came to us a year after that… We’re very low emission, but we still emit. So Shell set based on the emission a planned equivalent number of trees to sink the carbon into the ground, right? Yes. Planting and growing trees is the most practical, easy form of carbon sink, right? We put carbon back. If you cut down a tree and burn it, you release the carbon, but if you plant a tree, you’re sinking carbon. We did that for 2020.

What are you seeing with regard to electric vehicles? Is it still a wait-and-see for Mazda Philippines? Are you waiting for the aforementioned tipping point in the country — for it to mature or evolve to a state where EVs will become more palatable, more viable?

No, I think you’re right that, you know, if everybody sits around and waits for something to happen, it’s not going to happen. So last year, we took the first step by introducing hybrids (Mazda3 and Mazda CX-30 variants). They’ve been very popular, I must say that I drive one myself and I can see how things work; mild hybrid works, hybrid works, plug-in hybrid works. I know the government is doing something to incentivize and establish structures around it so that the energy provider can build a charging station and all of these pieces have to come together. If we wait around for somebody to do it, or we wait for the government or government for us, it becomes a waiting game. Our EV is called the MX-30, but Mazda’s strategy is not just one solution. It could be multiple solutions to see which is more appropriate here. So, if your electric energy is coming from a coal or a fossil-fuel source, then you know you’re transferring tailpipe emission from the car to somewhere else — unless you’re pulling it from geothermal, or other form of green energy.

What can you share with us about your plans for Mazda?

One thing I’ve learned in life is that plans change all the time. If you’re going to stick with a plan and say this is what we’re going to do and not allow the change, you’ll get frustrated. However, you must have a plan. So in my mind, when we started this project three years ago, I really had no idea it was going to pick up.

You were planning in the middle of the pandemic?

I was planning before the pandemic. And the pandemic put a pause to it. And I think that pause was a blessing. I’m a member of the Manila Sports Car Club… and it makes sense for us to collaborate. They’ve been extremely good partners to work with in terms of you know, the membership, making the rule development. And so, here we are today and there are several way it will evolve as the club experience in driving the series matures and more people come in. We may have to spin off into two different classes — one for beginners and one for experts because putting them on the same grid frustrates both groups, and it could become a safety thing as well. But we said we were very pragmatic about it, we said the first year is a learning year.

Manageable expectations.

For example, this weekend we’ll have a dialogue and say, “Okay, guys, what do we learn from this? What worked? What didn’t work? What would you like to change?” And then you do it again and again. And then one day it’s like, hey, this thing works pretty well, everybody.