For Mitsu, a change of scenery — and mindset

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Mitsubishi Motors isn’t relocating its North American headquarters from beachy Southern California to suburban Nashville just to save money and cozy up to alliance partner Nissan, which made the move there more than a decade ago.

The smallest of Japanese automakers in the U.S. is also reinventing its work culture — down to the coffee.

The company is leaving behind its campus in Cypress, Calif., just miles from Seal Beach, for leaner digs in friendly Franklin, Tenn., as part of a broad corporate strategy of turning the diminished brand into more of a nimble startup, quickly dispensing with old practices that aren’t working in favor of new ones that take some inspiration from tech culture trends.

“As we bring a new worker to the company, maybe someone who has come from a high-tech background, or a smaller company maybe not in the corporate world and they’re used to different work styles and different work schedules, we want to make sure we can accommodate all of the people we are trying to attract to the company,” said Jeremy Barnes, senior director of communications for Mitsubishi Motors North America.

“It really is a complete reinvention of everything that we do in the U.S., whether it’s looking at new organizational structure, whether it’s changing job functions based on our new approach to the future of our growth,” Barnes said. “Employee culture is going to be absolutely critical.”

Examples of the changes afoot for the build-out of the new office space, which Mitsubishi will lease: an open layout without the cubicles that are currently the core of the California office space; collaborative work areas to reduce the scourge of closed-door office meetings; and bottomless cups of free gourmet coffee.

“Something like free coffee seems so simple, and seems such a little thing, but it’s not something we currently have at Mitsubishi, and it’s one of those things we want to make sure we are offering going forward,” Barnes said.

Mitsubishi invited just over 60 employees to make the move out of about 250 working in Cypress. Workers were chosen based on how they fit into the new ethos of the company and whether they were interested in upending their lives and moving across the country, Barnes said. About 150 employees are being hired in the Nashville area and nationwide.

While Mitsubishi has no intention of “fishing” for Nissan workers, Barnes said a few did apply for open positions. Mitsubishi is hiring in departments such as sales, marketing, human resources, dealer operations and parts and service. “One of the things we were looking at is, people don’t necessarily have to have auto industry experience,” he said. “They have to be excited and passionate about helping Mitsubishi reinvent itself.”

Two prominent executives who have chosen to stay behind are Natalie Milton, chief information officer and a 26-year veteran, and Jorgen Weterrings, general counsel and a 17-year veteran.

Perhaps more important than the physical amenities is the flexible work schedule that Mitsubishi will employ, rather than the 9-to-5 office hours at the current location. The automaker has already implemented a more relaxed dress code that allows employees to choose attire appropriate for the day’s task, be it a suit and tie or jeans and buttoned shirt.

Fred Diaz, CEO of Mitsubishi Motors North America, said the corporate relocation is just a small part of the profound changes at U.S. operations in order to grow sales and think differently about Mitsubishi’s role in the market.

“This is an exciting time for us, with a refreshed leadership team, new-look dealerships and redesigned and all-new vehicles,” he said when the relocation was announced in June. “As we drive toward the future, this is the perfect time for us to move to a new home.”

While Mitsubishi’s U.S. sales reached just 95,571 vehicles through September, the company proudly touts that deliveries have been rising incrementally for the last six years and are on their way to a seventh year of growth — so far this year, they have improved 2.3 percent compared with 2018. The brand’s press releases invariably begin with the phrase “the fastest-growing Asian brand in the U.S. for the second consecutive year” with an asterisk. The achievement is only for mainstream brands for the 2017 and 2018 calendar years.

Mitsubishi dealers, who are being added nearly every month, expect sales to increase as the brand trades its aging mechanicals for modern platforms shared with Nissan, its closest partner in the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance since the two Japanese brands sell vehicles in the U.S. and Renault does not.

Mitsubishi is already operating out of temporary office space in Franklin, just across Interstate 65 from Nissan’s North American headquarters. Next year, the redesigned Nissan Rogue and Mitsubishi Outlander crossovers will share an alliance platform, the companies have said, as will future Mitsubishi products.

Barnes said about 10 employees have made the move permanently to Franklin so far, and others are in the process. Workers will move out of California in small waves each month until all have relocated. The Cypress campus will be handed over to its new owner at the end of the year.

Negotiations on the long-term office space are underway, Barnes said, and the move there should take place by April 1, which is the beginning of the company’s fiscal year.

Like previous relocations of Asian automakers from California — Nissan in 2006 and Toyota to a Dallas suburb in 2017 — Mitsubishi’s move opens new possibilities for the company and for employees who are willing to trade pricey but pleasant beach communities for harsher but cheaper climates.

“I’ve lived here 40 years,” said Barnes. “I was 11 when my parents moved from London to San Diego. So, I’ve spent fundamentally my whole life in Southern California. And I’m super excited about the opportunity to make the move, and I’m completely in on the adventure and completely in on helping be a part of the future at Mitsubishi.”

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