Carlos Ghosn gets the credit for Nissan Motor Co.'s product revival after he became CEO in 1999.
But Jack Collins, the top product planner for Nissan North America from 1998 to 2006, was the man who lobbied Ghosn and Nissan Motor product czar Patrick Pelata to undertake the costly and risky renovation of the U.S. lineup.
Collins' stamp is on many hit vehicles: the redesigned Altima sedan, 350Z sports car, Murano and Rogue crossovers and the Infiniti G35 sedan. Even the original Xterra SUV, which arrived before Ghosn did, has Collins' sweat equity in it.
The triumphs were sweet for Collins, but his career path beforehand was anything but.
A marketing executive by training, Collins left Ford Motor Co. in 1981 to join Toyota, where he worked for future President Jim Press in marketing.
Given a shot at launching Hyundai's U.S. effort in 1985, Collins couldn't resist joining up. But when Hyundai quality fell apart a few years later, Collins departed for a marketing gig at Nissan's new Infiniti Division in 1990. Collins' candor and unerring dissections of the market were tempered by a folksy charm that gave him a tremendous following.
Collins was hired at Nissan by future U.S. chief Bob Thomas. Collins immediately made his mark with the original 1993 Altima's “affordable luxury” marketing gambit.
But in a few years, Collins and Thomas had a falling out — odd because Thomas' wife, Avis, had worked for Collins at Hyundai and the men had history.
“We were in crisis,” Collins said. “The cars were heavily incentivized, lease residuals were suffering, and we had an empty product pipeline. I would say what I thought was needed. Others would say what Bob wanted to hear, but I'm not made that way.”
Collins was effectively fired by Thomas in early 1997, but Nissan's Japanese executives interceded and sent Collins to consult for Nissan Europe instead.
After Thomas was ousted, Collins was called back to Los Angeles in 1998. He and design boss Jerry Hirshberg were charged with creating a new wave of product for America — a year before Ghosn's arrival.
By backing bold ideas from his team, Collins fostered tremendous loyalty from his subordinates. Many employees had followed him from Hyundai to Nissan. And when he decided to stay in Los Angeles rather than move with Nissan to Nashville in 2006, more than a few others followed his lead.