Didn't know Acura
Her main challenge is to help reinvent Acura. The goal is to pattern Acura after BMW -- making fun-to-drive cars with innovative technology.
Acura execs say that some studies show consumers are beginning to think of Acura as being similar to BMW. But other studies indicate the brand is being considered by too few luxury buyers.
Poponi herself was a clear example of the problem.
"I love my BMW," she says, "but I wish I had cross-shopped it with an Acura TL because I could have gotten pretty much the same thing with the TL with a lot less money. But I didn't know anything about the TL.
"I think that's because Acura wasn't sure what it was, so the market was not getting a clear picture. Now we're narrowing the focus, getting a clearer view so we can increase our brand awareness."
Poponi, 45, is senior manager of product planning and one of only a handful of female executives at Honda. She's also one of the few senior executives to be hired from the outside. She was vice president of strategic growth with the Garrett Turbocharging Division of Allied Signal, then left for four years after she adopted a child.
She says she found the Honda job through luck. "I was looking for a job; Honda had an opening; they liked me, and I liked them."
Her immediate bosses are Dan Bonawitz, head of corporate planning and logistics, and John Mendel, senior vice president of automobile operations.
Through June, Acura sales were down 8.2 percent from 2005, and all nameplates except the small TSX car were down. The brand hopes to reverse that sales slide with the introduction of the RDX crossover, the redesigned MDX SUV and a freshened TL for the 2007 model year.
Poponi has degrees in chemical engineering and business administration. "I can talk engineering, and I can talk the business side," she says.
She has a competitive attitude. "Garrett supplies multiple customers from VW to Mercedes. So I know about a competitive market."
Garrett, of Torrance, Calif., supplies turbodiesel engines, primarily for cars in Europe. Most of its customers in this country make commercial vehicles.
Poponi often wears a big smile and is encouraging the Honda team to open up. "Honda is very secretive, even across product planning and PR," she says. "We need to share more information."
She also understands diversity. Her youngest child, whom she adopted, is Asian. She has mixed white and black nieces and nephews.
Seek customer desires
And she has the mind-set of a non-Honda buyer. "I have bought 10 cars in my lifetime, but never a Honda or Acura," she says. "So I can tell them (Honda) what my motivations were when buying.
"As for Acura, our intent is to find out what consumers want. We have the full intent to be a full-line luxury marque."
You may e-mail Kathy Jackson at [email protected]