Nissan needed a take-charge American sales executive. They found him at Lincoln-Mercury.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1987
Role: Nissan sales operation's first American president, 1990-93
Key influence: Invigorated sales by listening to customers and dealers and offering a product line suited to the market
Nissan's Japanese executives decided they needed an American to invigorate their sales.
They hired Tom Mignanelli, the straight-talking national sales manager of Lincoln-Mercury.
“I don't get much stress. I give it,” is how he later summed up his style to BusinessWeek.
Embracing "Rocks and Trees'
He slashed the bureaucracy, consolidated marketing and design operations and repaired ties with dealers. He also established a hot line for customers — and insisted that his vice presidents make themselves available to answer it.
His thorniest decision was to support Infiniti's “Rocks and Trees” advertising. The campaign, now widely seen as a failure, launched the Infiniti brand in 1989 without showing any vehicles.
“That was one of the most memorable advertising campaigns in the history of the automobile business,” Mignanelli says, without a trace of irony. “We did not have an automobile to launch when Lexus launched their vehicle, so we had to have something that made people want to wait to see our car, which was coming out three to six months later. There are very few times you can have an objective in advertising and come close to accomplishing it, but that was one of them.”
The burly Mignanelli, the middle child of first-generation Italian immigrants, grew up playing street hockey in Providence, R.I. He earned a business degree on a scholarship from Providence College and was a U.S. Army lieutenant in Vietnam before joining Ford Motor Co.
By the spring of 1993, Nissan's U.S. sales and market share were climbing, and the new Altima and Infiniti J30 sedans had broken fast out of the gate. But Mignanelli's flamboyance had worn thin, or maybe he just gave stress to the wrong people. Nissan let him go as he recovered from quadruple bypass heart surgery.
He harbors no hard feelings, though.
“I think the world of Nissan,” he says today. “They gave me an opportunity that I wasn't going to get at Ford. They took a chance on me, and I gave them six years, and we parted on reasonable terms.”
Not long after that parting, Mignanelli collapsed while jogging. Doctors discovered a tumor the size of a tennis ball in his brain. They told him he would be a vegetable.
Instead, after a yearlong recovery, he bought a sagging company that services cars before they're delivered to dealerships. He more than tripled its revenue. Stints in the vehicle storage business and as an executive recruiter and consultant followed — as did seven recurrences of the tumor.
“Once you have a brain tumor, there's a 50-50 chance it will happen again,” he says from his dream home in Hawaii, where he retired in 2003. “But I don't consider myself a victim. I don't want to get into that mentality. I'll be 64 this year and I've never said, "Why me?' “
You can reach Jeff Mortimer at (Unknown address).