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Time out for Tom Phillips

Hands on: Tom Phillips and (below) Mitsubishi's Tonsley Park assembly plant.

Mitsu boss Tom Phllips' decision to quit was no surprise - but the timing was awful

Mitsubishi logo14 Sep 2005

MITSUBISHI Motors Australia is reeling after the shock resignation of president and CEO Tom Phillips on the eve of the all-new 380 sedan’s media launch last week.

Mr Phillips, who in May last year revealed to GoAuto that he would quit after the Magna replacement was launched (see separate story), announced his retirement at 5.00pm last Wednesday – just hours before Mitsubishi Australia’s most important vehicle launch.

The timing, however, was premature – brought on by a leak to an Adelaide newspaper – and very unsettling for morale in Adelaide and in the dealer network at such an important phase of the company’s recovery.

The leak, also highjacked the attention of the motoring media for the better part of the crucial briefing on the attributes of the new car, information on which is under wraps until September 28.

Mr Phillips had originally intended to announce his resignation as president and CEO – but to stay on in an advisory role with Mitsubishi Australia for a further two years – after the 380’s official release on October 13.

But, after a replacement was found by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation in RobertMcEniry, the announcement was brought forward to last Friday at the conclusion of 380’s media launch.

As Mr Phillips explained at an emotional press conference that opened the 380 press launch on Thursday, the leak forced Mitsubishi to announce the new CEO both internally and publicly two days earlier.

"Yesterday probably seemed a bit rushed to a lot of you," he said. "However, events sort of overtook us.

"So late yesterday afternoon when we realised we wouldn’t be able to hold this issue for another day or so we managed to get to the people in the factory 10 minutes before they knocked off work at 4.00pm to communicate this to the rest of the company."Mr Phillips rates having to announce the closure in October of its Lonsdale engine plant – and the subsequent loss of 650 jobs – in May this year as the low point of his five-year tenure at Mitsubishi Australia.

"The thing I really fear most in Adelaide is my people reading about things to do with the company before we have a chance to communicate with them directly," he said.

"That was very important for me to be able to do that. It’s still very rough and not the way I wanted to do it, but that’s how it happened."But Mr Phillips was adamant a new chief would be beneficial to Mitsubishi Australia.

"Things have stabilised, we’ve got the new car coming out, we’ve got other products coming through over the next 18 months out of Japan and this is a good platform for someone else to take over," he said.

"And, realistically after five years in the role, it doesn’t hurt for any organisation to have a change at the top. Having fresh eyes and ideas come in isnever going to be bad for any company," he said.

"Our sales are up 16 per cent on last year – they’ve probably flattened out a little bit over the last couple of months, but we’re in the runout of a nine-year-old car and we’ve had no new product for quite some time.

 center image"We’ve just put the Lancer Mivec out there – which I think is a timely addition as it’s quite a powerful four-cylinder but economical – and now with the 380 coming, the company’s in reasonable shape to go forward. And I think it’s time to hand over."Mr Phillips said he would work with the incoming president and CEO from November 1.

"I think we were fortunate when Mitsubishi started doing its searches some months ago and they came up with Robert McEniry," he said.

"And I think it was fortunate that he was available and is available to start from November 1.

"The timing from my point of view is the car will be launched effectively on October 13 – there will be many launch activities leading up to that starting from today, of course, and then I’ll leave at the end of October.

"I think we’re going to do a great job with this car."Mr Phillips said that beyond his two-year advisory role with Mitsubishi Australia, he would travel with his wife and play more golf.

"I came here for three years and now it’s time to look at something else," he said. "This year I’m 40 years selling cars and I’m getting a bit tired of waking up on the morning of the last day of the month and wondering whether I’m going to hit my target or not.

"Whether I can relate it to sort of climbing Mount Everest and thinking, ‘Well, I’ve done it now, there’s nothing else I want to do’, I don’t know," he said.

Mr Phillips oversaw the development of Mitsubishi’s $600 million 380 sedan, led the largest upgrade to Mitsubishi’s manufacturing facilities in the Adelaide plant’s 40-year history and was the public face of Mitsubishi’s corporate confidence advertising campaign after leaving his post as sales and marketing director at Toyota Australia in June 2000.

The stress and strain that came with the job took its toll

TOM Phillips made no secret of the fact that he intended to call it quits as the chief of Mitsubishi Motors Australia once the Magna replacement was launched.

GoAuto was the first to break the news in May last year, just days after Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) revealed its worldwide restructuring plans which included the closure of the company’s Lonsdale engine plant in Adelaide.

"There are three main issues," Mr Phillips told GoAuto. "Number one is to ensure that the people at Lonsdale have as painless a transition as possible between now and October 2005.

"Number two is to sell some cars tomorrow, launch our new products that we’ve coming in (and) try and excite the market about Mitsubishi as a brand in general.

"Number three is to launch our new (Australian-built) car on time, which isOctober next year – after that, I’m probably done and dusted, quite frankly.

"I think by that time I’ll have had six years at Mitsubishi – that’s a pretty good timeframe for a CEO – and what happens beyond that is up to MMC.

"It’s like saying: how long are you going to be in manufacturing in Australia? I’ll just wait and see. If everything works successfully, then I’ll be here."The former Toyota Australia sales and marketing director said he was not undercontract and that there was no date set down for his departure.

Yet he acknowledged that the stresses associated with the position had taken itstoll and that he would never want to be in a position where he had to sack employees like he did at the Lonsdale plant.

"It has been quite exhausting. It’s been exhausting because when you go and stand in front of 600-odd people and say, ‘You’re out of a job and it’s not because you’ve done a bad job’ – that’s pretty hard ... and I would never want to do that again.

"These people did not deserve that, but on the other hand I understand the business reason for why it happened. I would never want to be around in a situation where Tonsley Park closed."That’s a possibility his replacement, Robert McEniry, now has to face.

– TERRY MARTIN

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