Nissan dealers have high hopes for Sentra, Pathfinder
Oklahoma dealer Brad Fenton sells cars and trucks in a region of big pickups and long traditions with domestic brands. And he is right there with those defaults, selling Ford and Chevrolet, Dodge and Ram in Oklahoma and Texas.
But for 30 years, Fenton has been bullish on Nissan. It was still Datsun when he started in 1982, attracted by the small pickup it offered.
Through three decades, the multifranchise retailer has championed Nissan as a brand with appeal and promise. He now has four Nissan stores, with a new dealership under construction for one of them, and was named the 2013 chairman of the Nissan National Dealer Advisory Board.
The brand is in the midst of a renewal of its core volume products -- including the Altima, Versa and Pathfinder -- and the pressure is on among factory executives to reach 10 percent market share in the United States, up from less than 8 percent now. Fenton says the redesigned Sentra will help Nissan get there. He spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell.
How was 2012 for you?
It was a very good year for retailing in our part of the world, in Oklahoma and Texas -- better than we forecast, actually. This part of the world has been very stable economically, with a lot of oil and gas-related business. So unemployment hasn't been as much problem as I've heard from dealers in other parts of the country.
Which makes for better credit scores as your people are closing deals, right?
Yes. And since the debacle of 2008 and 2009 we've seen the lenders coming back, and they've been very positive. Credit has gotten easier. But consumers went through a learning experience through all that. They learned that they couldn't have bad credit and necessarily get the new vehicle they wanted as easily as they expected. So I think they've been trying a little harder to take care of their personal business.
Some of that is tied to employment, no doubt. It obviously gets easier to improve your credit when you have a job.
What were the big Nissan sellers for you last year?
The Altima has been one of our core products all year and it does a great job for us. The Rogue has picked up tremendously. And the Versa sedan and hatchback have both done really well. We haven't had the availability we wished for with that product, but I understand that's about to change.
Also, the brand new Pathfinder that just hit the ground is doing fantastically well.
What's happening with the Pathfinder at the retail level, since it transitioned from an SUV to a crossover?
It's now in a much bigger segment than the previous Pathfinder. It was a truck before. The new Pathfinder has improved ride and handling and still offers great towing capability. We're looking at selling a lot more Pathfinders than in the past.
I have to add, as a Nissan dealer who has been around a long time, that I'm also very excited about the new Sentra that's just now debuting.
What makes you so upbeat? The Sentra hasn't been a giant seller in the recent past.
It looks to me to be the best product we've ever had in that segment. I'm convinced it could really be a segment-leading product that's way ahead of the competition, in terms of points of shopping comparison. Until now, Sentra has sold far fewer than the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The new Sentra is a bit larger, closer in size to the Camry and the Sonata. I'm expecting that the numbers rise substantially with that product.
You offer some historical perspective because you've been a Nissan dealer since the early 1980s, when the Sentra was one of the biggest-selling import models in the United States.
That's right. It was always a huge product for us in the past, and I think it will be again. But it was really the small pickup truck that we started off selling that attracted attention. I cut my teeth selling those Hardbody trucks.
How do you size up the Nissan franchise and its current management team at this moment?
I'm pretty bullish on Nissan. We've waited a few years for all these new products to come to market, and they're coming at a rapid pace now. I'm pumped about it.
I'll probably get into some trouble for saying this, but the management team we have now is by far the best we've ever had. The products they're developing for the U.S. market really seem to be hitting spot-on. The new Altima has been tremendously received. It's been a winner for us and keeps getting better. We're trying to become No. 1 in that huge mid-sized sedan segment at a time when the competition is also great -- the Camry and Accord, the Fusion and Malibu and the Sonata -- they're all swinging at that segment pretty hard. Despite that competition, Nissan's done a nice job of putting us into good position.
Just a few weeks ago, Brian Carolin said he will retire this year as senior vice president for sales and marketing. Dealers say he has been a positive influence the last few years. Are you concerned about his departure?
No. Brian has done an outstanding job running the American operation. He has really done a wonderful job, along with Al Castignetti [vice president of sales]. I think the strong leadership will continue. Jose Munoz will be Brian's replacement now. And Mr. Munoz was actually hired by Brian back in the days when they were running Nissan's European operations. That continuity gives us all a lot of hope and enthusiasm that there's a DNA from Brian that carries over.
And look at the great job Jose has done in Mexico. He's done a great job everywhere he's been. So I expect even loftier levels than where we've been in the past. I don't think anyone in the company expects to ever step backward or sideways. We're looking to move toward their goal of taking 10 percent of the U.S. market. And that's a big number, given that the SAAR is expected to increase pretty substantially in the couple of years.
Nissan's 2012 market share was down a little for the first time in a long while of steady increases. Does that matter to dealers?
But unit sales are up. We're selling more vehicles. And that's obviously what we live by as dealers. The factory management team looks at our market share. And as the market goes up, they want to be sure we maintain our share of it.
We have some pretty aggressive forecasts and goals. But a goal is where you'd like to be if all things work in your favor. A forecast is what we're all going to take to the bank. So between those two is the challenge and opportunity. My reading is that the industry performed much better in 2012 than anyone forecast. I don't think people were really that confident about seeing a rapid increase in sales with all the suppliers and factories getting back up to full speed.
Nissan has done a good job of keeping up with this market. If anything, maybe we underestimated the kind of opportunity we would have last year with the Altima.
We were transitioning from the old Altima to the new Altima, winding down the 2012 model sales to make way for the 2013, and there was still a lot of demand. For a while, it seemed like we had an awful lot of the '12s at one time. But then we managed to sell out of them before we got all the new models on the ground that we needed.
As a result, we were just a little short of product and missed some of what could have been. That may be why the share was down. We're at full speed again now.
What other opportunities do you see for the brand going forward? What about Nissan's full-sized Titan pickup?
There are some products planned in the future that will be enhancements to what we already have, including the Titan. I'm in truck country, so I'm a believer that there's a lot of opportunity with the Titan in the future.
When do you expect it arrive?
I have limited knowledge, but my understanding is that it's planned for about two years from now.
Is there a hole in the portfolio that dealers would like to get plugged?
Nothing obvious. We're in almost every segment now, and have other products on the way, like the compact NV200 van. There are some spots where we'd simply like to do a better job. But some of the updated products will correct that. The Sentra and the Pathfinder are the main ones.
With all these new products coming, and the ambition to boost their volumes, is Nissan advertising enough to suit you?
You mean enough to suit me as a dealer? I don't think there will ever be a chairman of a dealer advisory board who will tell you that the factory's spending enough money to advertise.
We continually discuss that issue, but they've done some really nice things to raise our presence in the market. The spend has been up about 20 percent in the past year. And we now have an additional dealer association marketing effort that has substantially increased our share of voice over the past two years.
Is there ever enough? Especially when you're launching products and trying to gain share in a competitive market? I always want them to spend more.