Jeff Guyton’s love of cars goes “way back.” The president and CEO of Mazda North America – and 1988 Wittenberg University graduate – recalls writing to Rolls Royce when he was just seven years old.
“I understood they built all their cars by hand, and therefore it was reasonable to assume that they could build one in my size,” he said with a laugh.
A senior managing executive officer of Mazda Motor Corporation, Guyton has spent his 30-year career in the auto industry.
He inherited the “car gene” from his father, Richard “Dick” Guyton, class of 1945. He also learned to appreciate Japanese culture and history from his father, who spent time living in Japan while serving in the U.S. military as a physician during the Korean War.
“I grew up with stories of Japan, and pictures of Japan, and things around the house from Japan,” Guyton said.
He followed in his father’s footsteps to Wittenberg and declared a major in chemistry, expecting also to follow his physician father into a career in medicine.
“When I got to Wittenberg, I found there was a really good and strong East Asian department, in many areas, including language instruction and history,” he said. Selecting courses from that program to meet the general education requirements, he earned enough credits to complete a second major in East Asian Studies (EAS).
That second major would prove to be critical to his career path and success after some time in a cadaver lab made him realize a career in medicine was not for him.
Wondering how he could make practical use of his language skills and knowledge of Asia, he turned to Professors Jim Huffman and Gene Swanger, both scholars in the EAS program at the time, for advice. They steered him to the University of Michigan, where he pursued an MBA and a master’s degree in Japanese studies. During his final year there, his interests in cars and Asia would come together in a job opportunity with Ford Motor Company in Japan.
“Ford made me an offer in November, and I spent the next three to four months trying to find another job,” he said. “I had it differently in [my] mind. I had wanted to figure out what was going on in the U.S. arm of a company and then go to Japan and bring something new.”
But it was the middle of a recession, and there were no other job prospects on the horizon.
“Ford wanted help immediately on the ground in Japan and that was the only place they were hiring,” he said. Guyton would become the first foreign national hired on a local contract within Ford's Japanese operation.
He spent three years in Hiroshima and Tokyo as a financial analyst, then six in Dearborn, Michigan, as a finance manager before making the move to Mazda, where he has had stints in Japan, Germany, and, most recently, Irvine, California.
Having worked with engineering teams throughout his career, his degree in chemistry has been as useful as his proficiency in Japanese.
“I understand a lot more about what they’re trying to do [in the design center] because of my chemistry background,” he said. “Frankly, all of the things I studied, I get to use quite often.”
Today Guyton oversees all operations and strategy for Mazda in the Americas – from Canada to Columbia to Mexico City – including sales, marketing, manufacturing, parts and service, logistics, communications, customer support, and all other regional operations.
Pre-pandemic, he traveled to Japan eight times a year; his last trip was in January 2020 to attend Mazda’s 100thanniversary event. At the time, he was anticipating an exciting anniversary year ahead but instead has had to deal with the coronavirus’ impact on the auto industry, and more recently, semiconductor chip shortages, which have created another layer of logistical challenges.
“Whether it’s chips or pandemic or anything else, the capacity of that whole system to deliver goods to people is less than it was,” he said. “Having said that, Mazda has been in business in the U.S. for more than 50 years, and more than a hundred years globally, and we’ve just had our best three months of sales and market share ever in the U.S.”
After more than 20 years with a Mazda business card, Guyton attributes those results to company culture. His leadership style is modeled on Maya Angelou’s famous words: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“That is at the core of how I try to promote culture in the company – looking out for how people feel and making them feel appreciated for what they do and inspired for what we’re trying to do as a team,” he said. “And that seems to be working.”
Guyton represents the fourth generation of his family to attend Wittenberg. His great-grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Berger Tavenner, class of 1875, was among the first women admitted to Wittenberg College and rode on horseback to get to class.