LOS ANGELES - In a sudden move that surprised Nissan North America staffers, Infiniti Division boss Tom Orbe resigned Feb. 23 from his post as general manager.
He was replaced by 39-year-old operations specialist Mark McNabb, who has been with Nissan since 1986.
Orbe, 49, said he resigned to seek a job that will allow him to spend more time with his family.
Orbe leaves Infiniti with the division primed for new growth. After taking the reins in 1997, he weathered rough seas as Infiniti tried to recover from years of rebadged Nissans, decontented product and cut-rate lease deals. Infiniti sold 65,552 vehicles the year he took over and 78,351 last year.
By focusing on building the brand image and on handling its customers better, Infiniti has gained ground on its competitors. Last year's sales and dealer profit margins set Infiniti records.
With a flood of new rear-wheel-drive products on the horizon, Infiniti seems ready to chase the leaders in the luxury segment again.
'Sure, there's more to be done, but the foundation and heavy lifting has been done. The product plan in place, the dealers are in place, all the key things are in place,' Orbe said.
McNabb admits he was startled by the job offer. 'Basically, they offered it to me on Friday, and I had the weekend to think about it,' McNabb said in an interview.
He said he still is learning his way around the division and deflected most questions about where he sees the division heading. He was scheduled to meet with the dealer council late last week.
Although McNabb considers himself a 'dealer guy,' he also has done three stints at the national office doing distribution and operations, and a term in Japan as product planning liaison between the parent company and the U.S. sales arm.
'Infiniti has a strong brand and is known as luxury. I need to build on that foundation, execute the plans that have been put in place and be profitable. My job is to immerse myself and be 100 percent Infiniti,' McNabb said.
`Home by 5'
That immersion in corporate life was a key reason Orbe cited for his resignation. Orbe said he quit because two decades of working 12-hour days and weekends had taken its toll.
'I'm looking for a position without the time requirements because I want to devote more time to my family. I want to get home at five,' Orbe said in a telephone interview last week.
Orbe said his job had become somewhat stifling.
'When you run a division, you become immersed in it. Even when you leave the office, you are still Mister Infiniti,' he said. 'You are always in the public purview, whether you're going to dealer openings, going on dealer trips, going to cocktail parties. It's almost inescapable.'
Orbe said he left on short notice because he didn't want to become a 'lame duck.'
'I didn't want this to linger on for a month and go to 22 parties and be holding on,' he said. 'I wanted to wait until the last minute and pull off.'
After working for Nissan North America for 20 years and Ford Motor Co. for eight, Orbe's next career move likely will be outside the auto industry.