A top strategic thinker struggled with Nissan's problems before the Renault rescue
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1982
Role: President, Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., 1993-97
Key influence: Kept Nissan's U.S. operations afloat while the parent company drowned in debt
Thomas was stuck with a daunting to-do list. Car sales were dipping. Nissan was short of trucks during the rise of the SUV. Sales of its Infiniti brand were off compared with Lexus. And residuals were plummeting because of a glut of off-lease cars.
The tactical challenges were huge for an executive more comfortable with a 30,000-foot perspective.
Thomas “was the right guy at the wrong time,” says Joe Opre, a veteran Nissan advertising executive who worked with Thomas on the Infiniti launch.
"Almost too smart'
“He was almost too smart,” Opre says. “He thought faster than he could talk. He had good intentions, but he was a strategy guy who got overwhelmed by a lot of tactical problems.”
Thomas' rise to president of Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A. was awkward. He was ordered by his Tokyo bosses to tell hospitalized U.S. President Tom Mignanelli that he was out of a job. Then Thomas had to announce his own appointment while laying off 115 employees.
But Thomas was at the forefront of several revolutionary ideas that shook up the industry. On his watch:
-- Nissan became the first Japanese automaker to launch a brand-building advertising campaign. Still struggling with the Datsun-Nissan name change in the early 1980s, Nissan used an actor to portray Mr. K and impart a brand “gyroscope.”
-- Thomas pushed Nissan's dealers to adopt contiguous marketing organizations, where one dealer could control all stores in a particular area.
-- Infiniti launched consumer-based pricing to eliminate haggling and reliance on incentives by bringing the sticker price closer to the transaction price.
-- Thomas created Nissan Plus, a program designed to protect residual values by allocating off-lease Nissans to dealers at set prices.
-- Nissan became a full-time casual-attire environment, well ahead of the khaki-clad dot-commers.
Should have kept it simpler
Not all the plans worked out. Many of Thomas' high-concept ideas befuddled his subordinates. Some Nissan managers hung signs outside conference rooms asking, “What does Bob Thomas want?”
Looking back, an introspective Thomas said: “What we were trying to do was add value. But there are a lot of different ways to do the same thing. There were simpler ways out of some of our messes than the way I championed.”
As the parent company and U.S. sales arm hemorrhaged red ink, layoffs and budget cuts were unavoidable. Boardroom clashes resulted in management shuffles.
Under pressure from the Japanese, Thomas left Nissan in the fall of 1997 to become executive vice president of the budding AutoNation retail group. From there, he moved to posts at DreamLot and Edmunds.com. Thomas now is 63 and retired, living in Hawaii.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on