5 more years

At 63, Honda's Dick Colliver says he wants to stick around

Dick Colliver

This article was originally published 01/27/03

DETROIT -- Ten years ago this month, Dick Colliver thought he had called it quits.

After 20 years at Mazda, he was ready for retirement in Palm Springs. But things didn't work out that way. Instead, he was quickly snapped up by American Honda, where President Koichi Amemiya needed an experienced hand to steer his troubled Honda business.

Colliver didn't plan on staying long at Honda. But after a tumultuous start, his tenure has turned into a decade-long winning streak.

Now, at 63, Colliver wants to keep going. Last fall, he knocked on Amemiya's door and asked if he could work for five more years.

Amemiya said yes, and Colliver will lead Honda and Acura through 2007. And questions about succession at American Honda Motor Co. can be put aside for a while.

Since Colliver joined the company, combined U.S. Honda and Acura sales have soared to 1.25 million, nearly double the decade-ago level. Sales have risen each year since 1993. Significantly, sales continue to rise while American Honda's incentives and inventories remain among the lowest in the U.S. industry.

"I'm having fun and feeling good,'' Colliver said in an interview this month at the Detroit auto show. "I wake up every morning, happy that I'm going to work."

The executive vice president will be happier still if he can retire with a final notch in his belt by pushing American Honda past 2 million sales a year.

Things were tougher when Colliver joined. Before that first winter passed, U.S. prosecutors had revealed their investigation of bribery payments from certain dealers to American Honda managers in exchange for favorable allocations of cars.

About two dozen dealers and Honda officials eventually would be indicted. Some - including Colliver's predecessor, James Cardiges, senior vice president of sales - were jailed.

The Colliver touch
Dick Colliver took over at Honda in 1993 and added Acura in 1998. Here are U.S. sales then and now.
Source: Automotive News Data Center

Beyond the scandal

Colliver stayed clear of the scandal and let U.S. investigators do their work. He had other concerns. Honda Division sales, which peaked in 1990 at 716,495, fell to 648,255 two years later. In 1993 they would fall again, to their lowest level since 1985.

Colliver brought in a cadre of Mazda loyalists and went to work on the Honda business.

He boosted incentives to reduce inventories and successfully brought a new Accord to market. To try to eliminate a crazy-quilt marketing messages from 81 regional ad groups, he sparked a controversy by handing regional marketing responsibility to Honda's national agency, Rubin Postaer and Associates. Dealers feared Honda ads would lose their local flavor.

At the beginning, Colliver thought he'd be lucky to last a year. But he survived, and Honda turned the corner. Thanks in large part to the arrival of light trucks, Honda Division sales finally cracked through the 700,000 ceiling, in 1996. They hit 800,000 in 1997, 900,000 in 1999 and 1 million in 2000.

Along the way, Colliver has launched two campaigns to boost Honda customer satisfaction. He has protected the U.S. product line by rejecting product that seems too Japanese.

He also was tapped to take over the Acura side of the business, in 1998. As they did at Honda, Acura sales went up every year after - until dipping 2.9 percent in 2002 to 165,552. The man who once said, "I've never failed at anything" saw one of his American Honda divisions lose volume for the first time in a decade at Honda. But gains on the Honda side more than made up for the drop at Acura.

Amemiya's decision to keep Colliver aboard is viewed as a no-brainer.

"Whatever Honda is paying him, it's a bargain," said Eric Noble, president of The Car Lab consultancy in Santa Ana, Calif., referring to the automaker's notoriously tight-fisted ways.

'He's priceless'

"This guy managed to survive the (boom-and-bust) years at Mazda and then the Honda dealer scandal with his integrity intact. He's priceless."

Colliver, a native Kansan whose voice still makes "Acura'' sound like "Akron," says that "Honda takes more than good care of me. The money takes care of itself."

Said Ron Theis, former Honda dealer council chairman and dealer principal of University Honda in Corvallis, Ore.: "Dick took over at a tough time and instilled the dealers' confidence. He's done an exceptionally good job protecting the Honda brand."

And with an eye toward the future, he adds, "There hasn't been anyone yet who the dealers would say is a good successor."

Colliver has said that he has been putting different people in a variety of roles so there will be plenty of experienced candidates in line when he does leave. In the meantime, he's pushing to raise Honda and Acura sales to 2 million units a year. A gain of more than 700,000 sales in five years could be his tallest order yet.

True, Honda's Alabama plant is making room for 150,000 more Odysseys and Pilots, and the new Element is scheduled for 75,000 units. Acura has growth goals for the redesigned 3.2TL coming this fall, and the new TSX sedan arriving in March is being counted on for 30,000 sales annually.

Beyond that, Colliver knows that he has to find ways to meet the needs of Generation Y - with volume cars and with more than just the Element.

Another challenge is his health. In December, he had surgery to remove and fuse a collapsed disc in his neck. Four screws hold a titanium plate in place. "It could have been serious," Colliver said in a mild understatement.

Three weeks later, he stood onstage before an overflow crowd at the Detroit auto show and introduced the Acura TSX sedan.

Despite the pain, quitting seemed the furthest thing from his mind.

Admitted Colliver afterward: "I don't know what I would do if I retired."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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