John Mendel of Honda: Light trucks will be the toughest challenge.
But all in all, Elliott has set a nice table for his successor.
The 62-year-old native Californian, the dean of Japanese import executives, has announced plans to retire next year. As executive vice president of automobile operations, Elliott has run Honda's U.S. sales arm for 15 years.
A low-key leader, Elliott is one of the last holdovers from the 1980s glory days, when Honda enjoyed the niftiest reputation in the U.S. auto industry.
When Elliott became top guy at American Honda, Lee Iacocca ran Chrysler Corp., Roger Smith led General Motors, and Don Petersen was in charge at Ford Motor Co. The year was 1989, and it was a big one for Honda. The Accord slipped past the Ford Taurus to become the best-selling car in America.
Elliott joined Honda right out of college in 1970. He started as a sales assistant and spent his entire career working for one company.
He nearly doubled Honda's U.S. sales during his 15 years as the boss.
Combined Honda and Acura sales through November are up 0.7 percent to 1,257,017, equal to 8.2 percent of the American market. When Elliott took over, the Honda-Acura share was 5.4 percent.
But the going is getting tougher. Honda Division's market share has declined this year. Sales are off 1.3 percent to 1,078,244 from January through November. Share has slipped from 7.2 percent during the first 11 months of 2003 to 7.0 percent this year.
Honda's Acura luxury-car division has done better. Sales for the year are up 15.1 percent to 178,773. Share is up from 1.0 percent to 1.2 percent.
Former Ford guy
Elliott plans to step down early next year. He'll be replaced by Mendel, a longtime Ford sales executive who most recently was COO for Mazda North American Operations.
Mendel, 50, joined Honda last week as senior vice president in charge of marketing, advertising, and product planning at American Honda. He will handle most of Elliott's duties but won't get his executive vice president title - at least not immediately.
"It's not an exact duplicate of what Tom was doing but is pretty close," a Honda spokesman said.
It is the second time Honda has gone outside to fill one of its top executive spots. In 1993, it picked another former Mazda executive, Dick Colliver, to be executive vice president.
Neil Huffman, a multiline dealer from Louisville, Ky., says he applauds the direction American Honda has taken under Elliott.
"Honda is exactly where it should be right now," says Huffman, who became a Honda dealer in 1995. "We've just completed an image renovation. We're stepping up our presence in light trucks. We're getting our new pickup truck. I think Honda management has put us in very good shape for the next few years."
Under Elliott, combined Honda and Acura sales have grown from 783,102 units in 1989 to 1,349,847 last year. But the success was overshadowed somewhat by Toyota's juggernaut.
Mendel has to get buyers to pay more attention to Honda's trucks and vans. Toyota has a clear lead in cars over Honda, but its advantage in truck sales is overwhelming. Toyota sells almost double the number of minivans and SUVs as its Japanese rival.
Studies show that even Honda's popular Odyssey minivan has only a 50 percent awareness rate among consumers - well below the figure for Dodge and Chrysler minivans, Elliott has said.
He said Honda will have to spend a lot to tell people about its first pickup, the Ridgeline, which goes on sale next spring.
Mendel has sold trucks before. He held a variety of sales and marketing jobs at Ford in North America before moving to Ford of Britain as director of marketing in 1999. He joined Mazda in January 2002.
Elliott was an influential voice as American Honda considered allowing publicly traded dealerships to own Honda stores. When the chains appeared in the 1990s, Honda resisted, fearing shareholder pressure might force Honda dealers to alter Honda's brand identity.
"But Tom was instrumental in bringing Honda around," says Sidney DeBoer, CEO of publicly traded Lithia Motors Inc. of Medford, Ore. "He said, 'Sure, we're all scared of this change that's coming at us. But what's really wrong with the idea of public ownership?' He was always a voice for the dealer."
DeBoer also credits Elliott for rising above a management scandal that ensnared others at American Honda in the early 1990s. The Justice Department prosecuted more than 20 former Honda sales managers for accepting bribes from dealers seeking favorable treatment.
"Tom stayed clear of that whole business," DeBoer says. "He kept his integrity when a lot of other people didn't. I think that explains why he was able to be a positive influence for so long at Honda."
Elliott's marketing mantra has been a consistent, understated message - and a willingness to avoid the incentive wars.
"We spend a lot of money, but our first focus is to create awareness," he said. "Sometimes we have humor, but we're not chest beaters. We don't beat the drums about the features and prices. We try to give information in a factual way. We're trying to create awareness of a category. We can't live forever on Honda loyalists."
Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell contributed to this report
You may e-mail Richard Johnson at [email protected]