This burly former rugby player made two defining calls. He railroaded through a U.S. assembly plant against bitter objections at home, then brushed aside U.S. dealer pleas and dropped the Datsun name.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1937
Role: President, Nissan Motor Co.
Key influence: Pushed through Nissan's first manufacturing plant in the United States; dumped the Datsun brand name
The brusque former rugby player championed Nissan's first U.S. assembly plant despite fierce opposition at home. And he axed the Datsun name.
“He was a man of action,” recalls Yoshikazu Hanawa, a former Nissan president, about Ishihara, who died in 2003 at age 91.
Ishihara joined Nissan in 1937, avoiding a tour of duty in World War II. In the 1960s, he was put in charge of budding exports to the United States.
In the late 1970s, though, his calls for a U.S. assembly plant met resistance in the boardroom — and from Ichiro Shioji, head of the union at Nissan.
From the day Ishihara became president, Shioji “declared a personal vendetta” against him, says Mitsuya Goto, the former head of Nissan's international department.
Ishihara stared down Shioji and got his U.S. plant. But he never quite shook a distrust of U.S. workers and their unions.
In 1980, he put Nissan's first U.S. plant in Tennessee, far from what he thought was the UAW's corrupting influence. He packed the factory with automation, to lessen the risk from sloppy workers, and had it build pickups. Yet he took a hands-off approach to running the plant.
“The different departments at the head office had concerns about entrusting all the operations to an American,” Hanawa says. But Ishihara overruled the skeptics. He gave his hand-picked manager, Marvin Runyon, two orders: Quality must be the same as that coming out of Japan, and costs must be controlled. “The rest is up to you,” he said.
In 1983, Ishihara dumped the Datsun name in the United States.
On an earlier trip to London, he had been stunned to learn that hardly anyone recognized “Nissan.” He feared the lack of recognition would hurt Nissan's overseas financing efforts.
“In the United States or Europe, when you said Datsun, everybody knew it. But nobody knew about Nissan. They'd say "Who are you? Who is Nissan?' “ Hanawa said.
The proposed switch drew flak. U.S. dealers were furious. Why abandon the popular “Datsun: We Are Driven” slogan and spend millions on an unknown name?
“Even the Japanese were disagreeing with the party line,” says Joe Opre, a former Nissan marketing manager. Tetsuo Arakawa, the U.S. president, “made it very clear he didn't like Ishihara's plan but that there was nothing he could do about it,” Opre says. “There was a lot of push-back, and Ishihara still did it.”
“For the first five years there was confusion in the market,” says Matsumura, “but finally it did work.”
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