Studying Cars and Cultures (int'l edition)

The companies, the brands, and the languages change. But nothing stops Juan Jose Diaz Ruiz from selling cars. He has been doing it all across Europe for 28 years, boosting sales at Ford, Volkswagen, and Toyota. And one thing Diaz Ruiz has learned is that some stereotypes hold true. Northern Europeans go for ''hard factors'' when they pick a car--precision and technology. Southern Europeans look for ''soft factors''--comfort and design. ''There are different ways of seeing the world, and you have to understand them,'' says Diaz Ruiz, who just joined Turin-based Fiat as executive vice-president of marketing and sales.

His international perspective is a crucial asset in the business. More than most, the auto industry is truly global, with a handful of giants competing in every market. But each market is different, and the trick is figuring out how. The French, for example, like diesel-powered cars, while the Germans demand precise fit and finish. There's plenty of data on people's buying habits, ''but only when you know them, do you understand the intensity of what they think,'' says Diaz Ruiz, who was born in Cordoba, in southern Spain.

Adjusting to new companies and cultures every few years is tough even for someone like Diaz Ruiz, who is gifted in languages. But you need more than language to understand a culture. Early in his career, he was startled by the U.S. emphasis on short-term results. He chuckles as he recalls how, years ago, he would brief an American boss about a sales deal. ''And he'd answer, 'Yes, but what are you going to do for me today?'''

Diaz Ruiz was back in Spain working for carmaker Seat in 1986 when VW bought it. ''I'm from the south, and their precision and the attention to detail--that required a big change on my part,'' he says. But somehow he clicked with the Germans, who put him in charge of sales for VW's upscale Audi brand for five years. The result? Audi's sales overtook BMW's for the first time. When Toyota decided to make a big push in Europe, it hired Diaz Ruiz, who boosted sales 50% in two years. Working among the Japanese had its frustrating moments. ''You need 100% consensus to do anything,'' he says.

Now, Diaz Ruiz is back in the Mediterranean. But it's not all sunshine and Campari. Fiat Auto is losing money. Diaz Ruiz plans to work on strengthening the Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa Romeo brands and increase sales in emerging markets. And competition in Europe just gets tougher. It's hard for a newcomer in any company to drive change. Diaz Ruiz is sensitive to the pitfalls. ''If you can't respond to the good things about your team and the company,'' he says, ''you can turn the company and the team against you.'' He faces a daunting task. But for Diaz Ruiz, it's all part of the job.

By Christine Tierney in Frankfurt

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