Auto-Biography: In conversation with Owen Mildenhall
In the second interview in the Auto-Biography series, Toby Richards-Carpenter speaks with Owen Mildenhall, PR Manager for Mazda UK. A former racing driver and motoring journalist, Owen has for the past six years been a key figure in Mazda’s UK operations, ensuring that car launches run like clockwork and also managing the Mazda heritage fleet. As Toby discovered, Owen brings a fascinating perspective to the crucial conversation around the present and future of the UK’s Automotive sector.
1. How did you get into what you do?
For me I wasn’t naturally a journalist, but I have always worked in and around cars. Originally I was mad about motorsport, and I started out racing cars, but discovered I couldn’t make a living that way. Maybe if I’d got into karting at six years old and had the financial means to follow it through, I would have been good enough, but those were not my circumstances. So I branched out, working for racing schools as an instructor, and then for manufacturers such as Porsche, MG and BMW on corporate events, dealer training events, car demonstration events and such-like.
Whilst this work was all enjoyable, after it dawned that I wouldn’t become a professional racing driver, I decided I needed a solid plan B. As an avid reader of car magazines, I saw car journalism as a potentially interesting career. Initially I gained work as road test assistant at Top Gear, which led to a road testing job at Auto Express, and eventually 10 years as a car journalist. Ironically this also allowed me to re-start as a racer because opportunities came about through the journalism (and I still had a racing licence); as a result I got to race at the Nürburgring 24 hours and in the British GTs, all kinds of things.
I reached a crossroads eventually regarding where to go next with my career, because for all of the enjoyable aspects of car journalism – and there were many – there were also the bad bits, long hours, deadlines and an inevitable ceiling on salary growth. Then there is the paradox at the heart of it all: if you progress to becoming an editor, you get further away from driving the cars.
Therefore when the opportunity came up at Mazda I was delighted. I knew the Mazda brand well, had raced for them in the British GT championship, and had always found it an exciting brand. In the PR world it helps to have had all different kinds of experiences, including corporate events, racing experience and journalism. A lot of car journalists don’t appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes to create an event like an international car launch to ensure it runs smoothly, but I was always interested in that aspect of things.
2. What do you know now that you wish you had known at the outset of your career?
Maybe to enjoy the good times more, because it can be hard to appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. So you’ve got to make sure you enjoy the three days at Anglesey circuit, driving a Ferrari, or whatever it may be – at the time perhaps I didn’t always realise how special it was. I wouldn’t have planned my life or career differently in retrospect, but I would try to appreciate things more at the time.
I’m not a person who’s big on change, and I enjoy what I do now. I am confident in my abilities but I don’t automatically assume things will be better if I make a change – I’m not one of these people who strives for change in my career every four or five years.
3. What legal issues do you encounter in the course of your work?
For me, in my role in a public relations team, thankfully there are not many. That said, one issue I do recall was when we arranged a car shoot on a public road, and there was a graffitied wall in the background. Although the car was legally parked on a public highway, and it was not our intention to feature the graffiti, we were contacted by the artist to say we’d used his artwork – which apparently had been placed on the wall with the owner’s consent – without permission. The advice we received was that this could be an issue.
But more widely, Mazda as an organisation faces all kind of legal issues. For example, at a global level Mazda can face issues with car recalls or licensing of factories. At a European level, dealership agreements and import taxes are relevant. But in my area of PR there are not many legal issues. We don’t tend to set press embargoes at a UK level – we steer clear of them – they are difficult to enforce legally.
4. Where do you think the UK automotive industry is heading in the future?
Overall this is a very challenging and constantly changing period for the car industry. There are a lot of disruptors, both in the form of new regulations prescribed by government and commercial disruptors such as the wave of new Chinese brands being introduced to the UK market. It’s a very interesting field to work in – very few other industries are undergoing such a dramatic period of change.
Owen Mildenhall has worked in the automotive industry for three decades, and having raced, written about, instructed in, talked about and tested cars for a living, he is now PR Manager for Mazda UK. Having worked as a race school instructor and performance driving coach for manufacturers, while racing full-time when younger, Owen then spent 10 years as a motoring journalist and road tester, working largely for Auto Express. Since 2015 Owen has worked in automotive PR and is currently the PR Manager for Mazda Motors UK Ltd.
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