LOS ANGELES — For the past four years, Terry Maloney has had to drag himself to the podium at Isuzu's annual NADA make meeting, face a grim, even surly dealer body and relay the worst possible news: No new product is coming.
Maloney won't have to do that this year, though. The Isuzu Motors America Inc. president has canceled the brand's Feb. 11 make meeting in San Francisco. Isuzu's train wreck of a U.S. sales operation is calling it quits — after years of self-destruction.
Isuzu will stop selling new vehicles here Jan. 31, 2009. The brand's 201 U.S. dealers have a year to clear their inventories of five-seat Ascenders and small i-series pickups. Isuzu will book a 4 billion ($37 million) charge to wrap up its U.S. operations.
So what happened to the once nimble Japanese brand that as late as 1994 sold more SUVs in the United States than Toyota — then collapsed in a heap?
Not much mystery there. Isuzu's bosses in Japan gave up on America, or at least began to treat it like a distant irrelevancy. U.S. dealers were starved of products.
The die was cast in 2002 when executives in Tokyo decided to concentrate on commercial trucks in emerging markets and let Isuzu Motors America's once lucrative light-duty vehicle business shrivel.
Still, Maloney says he didn't see the U.S. pullout coming.
"Isuzu Limited made the decision just the other day," he said last week. "It was a surprise — a sad surprise. Not that I didn't have my eyes wide open, but it was always our intention to stay in North America."
Maloney, 59, has been president of Isuzu Motors America since 2002. He spent 17 years in sales and marketing jobs at American Motors in Detroit, then owned a Dodge dealership in Tampa, Fla., for two years before coming to Isuzu in 1989. He'll stay on with Isuzu, running its leftover parts and service business.
He delivered the bad news to Isuzu's dealer advisory board on Wednesday, Jan. 30.
"It was a sad occasion," Maloney said. "I know most of these dealers personally. It was very difficult to tell the employees and the dealers. This group stuck with us to keep the Isuzu dream alive. It has been a difficult four years."