The red Porsche featured clean lines and 390 horsepower, but for fifteen-year-old Eric Watson, it might as well have been the family station wagon. This was the first time the high schooler had slid into the driver’s seat.
But his boss, the owner of an import/export car dealership, insisted Watson get the feel for a tricky transmission before he started shuffling cars around the lot. “He was surprised I didn’t already know how to drive,” Watson recalls. “He threw me into that expensive car to test the waters.” After just twenty minutes and a handful of stalls, Watson secured his role as car jockey, sparking a lifelong interest in axles, engines, and speed. That passion has fueled the Marriott School grad’s career, eventually landing him a top marketing position with Mazda. And while there’ve been stops along the way, one thing is definite—–Eric Watson has no trouble shifting gears.
Born and raised in the heart of Orange County, California, Watson and his two younger sisters had an idyllic childhood. Their mother stayed home, and Watson’s father was an officer on the Costa Mesa police force—something young Watson didn’t think much about until one sunny afternoon.
The final bell had rung, and ten-year-old Watson and his friends celebrated with a round of hide-and-seek. Spotting the elementary school’s covered walkway, the boys decided to take the game on the roof. A police helicopter sighted the trespassers, and soon Watson was headed home in a squad car.
When his father answered the door, an officer handed him the repentant youngster and said, “Sergeant Watson, here’s your son.”
“That was an incredibly embarrassing moment,” Watson recalls. “I didn’t ever want my dad to be disappointed in me.”
The lesson stuck. Watson worked hard in school, determined to make his parents proud.
When he entered high school, he had room for an elective course. He signed up for Film and Television Production and fell in love. He enrolled in the class for the next three years.
The hours spent filming soon translated into a small business for Watson and his best friend, Perry. The pair recorded school assemblies, plays, and programs, selling edited copies to proud parents and grandparents.
“Deciding which tricks to use with the camera was fascinating,” Watson says. “But the most enjoyable part was telling the story.”
Last October Watson was behind the camera again—this time with Mazda on a commercial shoot for the company’s full-size crossover, the CX-9. Filming in Los Angeles, a seventy-five-person team spent nearly seventeen hours on the first day of shooting. The result: a mere fifteen seconds on the screen.
While a Mazda ad may seem worlds away from a high school film class, Watson disagrees.
“The technology is obviously much more advanced, but the basics are the same,” he counters. “It’s my job to tell Mazda’s story to customers and to find a clever way to do it.”
On a daily basis Watson—whose official title is group manager of brand and marketing communications—works with a twelve-person team to gather research, create strategies, and develop creative marketing materials for Mazda’s products.
Working off a twenty-four-month calendar, his team looks far down the road to determine what buyers will want. At the eighteen-month mark, Watson holds clinics with consumers and dealers to gauge interest. After that it’s time to start preparing communications to flood media channels when the product launches.
In the coming months Mazda is planning to expand its family with several new models. For Watson, that means more research, more creativity, and more storytelling.
“The designs are aggressive, and the technology is premium,” Watsons says of the yet-to-be released installments. “I’m hoping we can convey that to customers.”
While Watson exudes expertise, it’s fair to say he hasn’t always been a polished auto industry insider.
After a year at Orange Coast College, Watson departed on an LDS mission to Ecuador. His stint in a suit and tie was a singular experience—exposing him to another modus vivendi—and proved to be the gateway to his future.
Halfway through his mission, Watson spotted a picture of a pretty woman on a fellow missionary’s bulletin board. She was a friend of the missionary’s family. Watson found her attractive but soon forgot about the girl in the photo.
That is until he ran into her at a missionary homecoming. Her name was Carie Kerstiens, and she, like Watson, was slated to attend BYU the next semester. Their conversation was brief but made a lasting impression.
On the day after Watson moved into his apartment near campus, he met her again—she was moving her things into the unit directly above his. He didn’t wait for another chance, and the pair married the following summer.
While Carie pursued a degree in history, Watson was all business. After a quick dabble in entrepreneurship, he made the switch to marketing.
That decision crystallized when one of Watson’s professors challenged his class with a semester-long consulting project. Watson’s group of five was assigned to work with Auto Shade. The auto-accessories company wanted to make their packaging more visually appealing.
For Watson, the project confirmed he was in the right field. “It gave me a boost of confidence that I was going to be able to take what I learned at the Marriott School and apply it in the real world,” he says.
At the end of the semester, the group’s suggestions met with acclaim from company execs. In fact Watson was so proud of his team’s work, he’s still got a bound copy of the presentation.
According to Watson, there’s no better job than marketing cars.
He’s taken a Jaguar down an airport runway at 165 miles per hour, towed a ten-thousand-pound trailer up the Continental Divide with a Ford truck, and battled muddy roads in a Range Rover outside Eastnor Castle in England.
But before he tackled those obstacles, Watson was working his first job as a sales manager for Ford Motor Company in Orlando, Florida. The position took him across the state multiple times a week, but the extensive travel became a boon to Watson’s fledgling career.
“Instead of going back to my hotel in the evening, I’d spend extra hours at the dealership, learning the business in detail,” Watson explains. “It gave me a different relationship with the owners. They saw the amount of effort I was willing to put in.”
With two years in Florida and another two in Colorado under his belt, Watson accepted a position at Ford headquarters in Detroit, where he worked in digital marketing. Next he moved to the division developing online shopping tools before taking on a finance job.
While the variety of roles may seem scattered, Watson has always had one goal in mind—get as much experience as possible.
“I’ve been willing to take a chance,” he says. “It’s hard to move and relocate your family, but I knew if people saw me excel in other functions, it would open up new opportunities for us.”
One of those opportunities, the role of regional marketing manager, gave Watson his first foray into leadership. Based in Seattle, Watson was charged with managing advertising and events across seven states and nearly two hundred dealerships.
At the time, Ford was rolling out a voluntary program where dealers could make a 2 percent contribution to a local advertising fund. Dealership owners across the country signed up, and Watson didn’t see why dealers in Montana would be any different.
To spread the news, he sent an email to all thirty-two dealers in the state, asking for their vote to move the program forward.
“It was a miserable failure,” he recalls. “They weren’t going to do it, and I couldn’t understand why.”
Watson decided to take his campaign on the road. He spent ten days driving across Montana, making a stop at each dealership. He listened to concerns and explained what Ford would do with the money.
Unsurprisingly, the next vote had a different outcome—all thirty-two dealers signed on.
“You need a personal relationship with the people you’re doing business with,” Watson says of the experience. “It’s not as easy as sending out an email and everyone saying, ‘Yes, we’ll do it!’”
After years on the road, Watson and Carie were growing weary of the constant roving. They’d added three boys to the family, and the time seemed right to ease into a more settled life.
Luckily an opportunity opened up in Irvine, California, just a few miles from Watson’s hometown. And there was a bonus. The position was at Jaguar and Land Rover, both owned by Ford at the time.
The family settled into West Coast life, and Watson spent three years managing the certified pre-owned program and sales operations for the brands. Then came the Great Recession and a dizzying tailspin for the auto industry.
By the summer of 2008, Jaguar and Land Rover were in the hands of Indian carmaker Tata Motors, which had announced plans to move operations to New Jersey.
“My wife and I had only been in California for three years, and we had spent most of our adult lives trying to get back here,” Watson says. “We weren’t ready to leave.”
Cashing in some of the good will Watson had accrued gave him an extra year in California in a finance role for the brand.
At the end of that gig, the economic downturn presented Watson with another opportunity. Ford was also selling its interest in Mazda, which needed someone to help with its certified pre-owned program.
Watson accepted the challenge, finding his previous experience invaluable.
“It opened up an opportunity for me to create something from the ground up,” Watson explains. “I was given a small team and limited resources to come up with a plan of action.”
The resulting program was a huge boon for the company. Sales increased 300 percent during the first twelve months and have grown steadily since.
But the program’s success did more than cement Watson’s future at Mazda. It kept his family in Orange County and allowed the Watsons to finally put down roots.
If you ask Watson what he’s most proud of, he doesn’t hesitate—it’s his family.
“Being a dad is a great reward,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see your children grow and mature.”
His sons, now fifteen, twelve, and ten years old, are equally loyal.
During a family vacation several years ago, a rental car company assigned the Watsons a Chevy for their trip. Watson’s middle son was distraught. He puffed out his chest, crossed his arms, and plopped down on the curb. He wasn’t getting into anything other than a Ford.
Watson and his wife tried everything, including asking for a different car. When that turned up empty, they used logic: “If you want to come on vacation with us, you’re going to have to get in the car.” That did the trick, though the little guy still expressed his disdain for the Chevy.
“He’s a little more accepting of other cars now,” Watson laughs. “The boys are good with Mazdas.”
While it’s too early to tell if any of his sons will follow in their father’s footsteps, one of them is showing interest in the things that got Watson into the industry in the first place—creating and editing short films.
It wouldn’t be the first time things have gone back to the beginning for Watson.
“The auto industry is very cyclical, and every ten years there’s a bit of a blip,” he says. “We’ve just come through a very difficult one, but I’m looking forward to ten years of growth and opportunity.”
For Watson, there’s plenty of open road ahead.
Article written by Megan Bingham
Photography by Bradley Slade