A steadfast Subaru building its brand

As a top executive at Subaru of America Inc., Thomas J. Doll has traveled to Japan on business many times to meet with his colleagues in Tokyo.

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan on March 11 didn't cause him to change plans to fly out from Newark two days later. However, after landing in Tokyo and learning that the State Department was advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Japan, Doll wound up cutting this visit short and returning to Cherry Hill.

Thomas J. Doll , chief operating officer of Subaru of America in Cherry Hill.

For the last 12 days, production has been halted at the five vehicle and parts factories run by Subaru's parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. The main problem for the factories, all in the Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo, has not been earthquake damage, but lack of consistent electric power as a result of several damaged nuclear reactors.

Those power problems and widespread shortages of auto parts have idled much of Japan's auto-assembly industry. Fuji, which has seen its stock price fall 10 percent since March 11, now says it expects to restart those plants on Thursday. Production of parts for overseas production was scheduled to resume Wednesday.

That would be welcome news for Subaru's factory in Lafayette, Ind., where it made 158,000 units of its Legacy, Outback, and Tribeca models last year. Other than the elimination of overtime shifts, the Indiana factory stayed on schedule producing cars for Subaru's 622 U.S. dealers, Doll said.

Only Subaru Foresters and Imprezas are assembled overseas and then imported. The Yokohama port used by Fuji was largely unaffected by the disaster. A ship filled with 4,000 Foresters and Imprezas left last week bound for the United States, Doll said.

As chief operating officer of Subaru of America, Doll has been able to tell a remarkable growth story for the last few years as the Cherry Hill company has nearly doubled its U.S. market share to 2.3 percent. And it did so while keeping a lid on incentives, unlike many of the biggest players in the industry.

Even now, Doll said he believes Subaru remains on track to top its 2010 record of 263,820 vehicles sold. In an interview Tuesday in his office overlooking the Cooper River, Doll said higher oil prices hadn't dissuaded him from that notion.

"I think that actually helps us," he said.

Pain at the pump helped convince gas guzzler owners to switch to Subaru before, he said. It may again, especially if the company can deliver on what it expects to announce at the New York International Auto Show next month - a 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency in its new models.

How would it do that? Doll wouldn't tip his hand.

Subaru has had such a charmed run that Doll didn't even mind getting a phone call from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last November. Usually, when regulators come knocking, recalls aren't far behind. However, LaHood simply wanted permission to use a Subaru TV commercial as part of presentations he was doing on distracted driving caused by texting and cell-phone use.

That commercial, called "Baby Driver," shows a father telling his daughter, who looks to be about 6 years old and is sitting in the driver's seat, not to take the freeway or use a cell-phone while driving. After he hands her the keys, the camera shows that his daughter is really a teenager who presumably just got her driver's license.

It's the kind of heart-tugging commercial that brands often use to inject emotion into what is a huge financial transaction for many customers.

Subaru will never outspend a General Motors or Ford on advertising. It just keeps trying to build its brand loyalty as it slowly raises its profile in a crowded U.S. auto market.


Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com. See his blog at www.phillyinc.biz