Since 2011, Subaru’s global sales have surged 45 percent, a pace bested only by a few burgeoning Chinese brands and Fiat Chrysler.
The tornado tore through Lafayette, Ind., at 3 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2013, a Sunday.
Most of the 4,000 workers at the local Subaru factory — the only such facility outside Japan — were between shifts when the twister slammed into the building at almost 140 miles per hour. It tore off a section of roof, flung a 3-ton air-conditioning unit like an empty beer can and toppled a concrete wall onto the assembly line.
“Monday was a day off. Tuesday morning, we were open at 6 a.m.” says Tom Easterday, the executive vice president who runs the factory.
The roof was a patchwork of temporary panels, the floor was covered in a few inches of rainwater, and the plant was cold. But shutting down production wasn’t an option.
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Subaru had enough inventory in the U.S. to last about 11 days, an impossibly slim buffer in an industry famous for revving supply far beyond demand.
The 2014 Outback that wound up under the concrete wall was driven off the line, retouched and sold.
Tornadoes have kept their distance from Subaru’s Indiana factory in the months since, but the pressure to churn out more vehicles has only increased.
Since 2011, Subaru’s global sales have surged 45 percent to 913,100 vehicles, a pace bested only by a few burgeoning Chinese brands and Fiat Chrysler, which has been intent on making Jeep a popular choice in Europe and Asia.
In the U.S., electric automaker Tesla is the only car company that has increased sales as quickly in that period.
And Subaru has done all this while cranking out the best profit margin in the industry.
The company, however, couldn’t be less suited to handle a sales surge. Last year, Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, sold a car about every 3 seconds, while it took 35 seconds for a Subaru to leave the lot.
Almost any car company one can name is far bigger than little Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent. BMW? More than twice the size in terms of unit sales. Kia? Almost three Subarus. Even Mazda sells 50 percent more cars.
Being small, though, is the reason Subaru has become such a big deal.
With manufacturing capacity maxed out, it now has to decide what kind of company it wants to be.
Tom Doll, 61, is an unlikely chief executive for a car company. For one, he’s an accountant by training, not a salesman or marketer. Crumpled into a Marriott easy chair down the road from the Indiana plant, he’s soft-spoken with a trim build that suggests a diet composed of more sushi than steak.
Doll is also the closest thing one will find to a company man in today’s car business. He’s been with Subaru since 1982 and has never worked for a competitor, though he did once consider switching careers to teach math and economics to high-school kids.
Doll was there for the dark days of the late 1980s, when Subaru lost almost half its U.S. sales volume. And he remembers the greased lightning that was the Outback launch in 1995, which helped the company recover all that ground.
By 2005, however, most of Subaru’s competitors were selling something similar in terms of shape and capabilities, and the little Japanese giant killer was once again losing ground.
The brand wasn’t moving the needle beyond its base of crunchy, fairly liberal consumers on the coasts, and the company’s global sales fell 3 percent, to 569,000 vehicles.
Doll, then chief operating officer of Subaru in North America, pitched a bold plan to the top executives in Tokyo: Stop crowing about horsepower and prices and start talking about the love customers have for their cars.
Don’t stop there, Doll suggested. Talk about the love customers have for their cars, their kids, their dogs, their kayaks and their communities.
“We were getting the tar kicked out of us,” Doll says. “I realized we couldn’t compete with these bigger companies at their game. We had to come at it in a completely different way.”
Doll was given the green light, as well as the top job at Subaru’s branch in North America, its largest market. “They gave me three years,” he says. “If I wasn’t successful, I would have been gone. And, of course, I didn’t know we were going to have a financial crisis.”
In late 2006, Doll hired a new creative agency, Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch, a unit of Interpublic Group. The first change was simple: The tag line — ”It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru” — was prefaced by “Love.”
A slate of emotionally charged ads followed. Kids and dogs were everywhere. The only features the company lingered on were safety-related. Instead of buying a Super Bowl slot, the company sponsored Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl.
“Before 2008, you kind of knew about Subaru or you didn’t,” says marketing chief Alan Bethke. “That all changed with the ‘Love’ campaign.”