The 1990s were a struggle for Nissan's U.S. sales and marketing boss. Then came Renault and loads of fresh products.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1989
Role: Senior vice president for sales and marketing, Nissan North America
Key influence: Headed sales and marketing after alliance with Renault in 1999, helping bring key new products to Nissan and Infiniti brands.
So after Carlos Ghosn took command of Nissan Motor Co. in 1999, the automaker's comeback was a rush.
As the company's top sales and marketing executive in the United States, Connelly guided a wave of sales generated by such vehicles as the 2002 Altima, 2003 350Z sports car and 2003 Infiniti G35.
“Nothing was quite like the Altima,” Connelly fondly recalls. “It had styling, interior room and performance. It was the antithesis of a boring mid-sized sedan. At the (2001) New York show, we watched our competitors looking at it. I watched Dick Colliver (of Honda) and Jim Press (of Toyota) looking at it.
“Then we came out with the Z, a rebirth of the original car. We followed that up with the Murano. That was another car that exceeded our expectations.”
In 2000, Connelly was on his second stint at the company when he worked his way up to the top sales job, senior vice president for sales and marketing. He was a field representative from 1989 through 1994, left for a job outside the industry, then returned to Nissan in 1998 as director of distribution, contests and incentives.
1998 “was stressful,” he says. “It was hard to do anything without the product. We were battling. I won't say it was a losing battle, but we were working very hard just to stand still.”
Renault's 1999 acquisition of Nissan changed everything.
“On the Nissan side, we knew the Xterra and Crew Cab were coming, but the rest of it was ideas and plans,” Connelly says. “We did a road show that showed future product. But, frankly, while the product was doable, it still had not been funded.
“That's when the alliance helped. It gave us the money so we could bring that product to fruition.”
Nissan's and Infiniti's string of hits faltered a bit with the Nissan Titan full-sized pickup, which had the difficult task of muscling into the Detroit 3's prime truck turf. The redesigned 2004 Nissan Quest minivan also struggled.
But overall, the product revival under Ghosn was outstanding. Combined Nissan and Infiniti sales in the United States rose from 677,212 in 1999 to 1,068,238 in 2007.
Connelly retired in 2006 at age 60 after deciding not to move with U.S. headquarters from Los Angeles to Nashville. He looks back fondly on Nissan's comeback.
“At a dealer show in 2004 or 2005, we showed them the showroom of 1998. Then for the final curtain call, we showed them the current showroom of 14 cars,” Connelly said. “This was in Las Vegas. We were trying to explain to them how far we had come.
“About 2,000 dealers were there. There were so many cars, they had to put a second level up there.
“I get goose bumps today thinking about it. We got a standing ovation. It was awesome.”