Honda's Mendel to retire April 1; Conrad gets top role
LOS ANGELES -- John Mendel, an auto industry veteran who steered Honda and Acura through the Takata airbag crisis and championed the brands’ strict discipline against fleet sales and heavy incentives, is retiring as executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co.’s auto divisions, effective April 1.
His duties will be taken over by Jeff Conrad, general manager of the Honda division, who now adds Acura division to his portfolio, the company said Tuesday in a statement outlining several management changes in Honda’s North American operations.
“This was really just about time,” Mendel, 62, told Automotive News. “I’ve done this for almost 42 years now and I’d love to stay longer, but candidly I dragged my family around for 41 years so it’s time I give them another 41 back.”
More time with family includes starting a distillery with one of his sons in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. The outfit will be called Devil’s Creek Distillery, named after a fictional town in a novel written by Mendel’s wife, Luan.
Mendel also plans to keep one foot in the automotive space by working with “a dealer group or two” to develop leadership training practices. “We’ll see where that evolves,” he added.
He’ll have plenty of experience to draw from.
Mendel will exit American Honda with the Honda division on an upward trajectory and with a product lineup that is among the freshest and most competitive in the industry. Honda won the North American Truck of the Year award for 2017 with its Ridgeline, and the Car of the Year award the year before for its Civic.
American Honda’s U.S. sales totaled a record 1,637,943 units in 2016, up 3.2 percent from a year earlier, and a 12 percent jump from 2005, Mendel’s first full year at Honda.
Much of this is attributed to Honda responding to lapses in quality and refocusing on engineering class-leading vehicles, a hallmark of the brand that helped Honda earn its reputation for reliability and quality 40 years ago.
Among the other changes announced Tuesday:
- Dave Gardner, currently senior vice president, becomes president of Honda Canada, succeeding Jerry Chenkin, who is retiring.
- Masayuki Igarashi becomes executive vice president for auto, auto operations and export sales at American Honda; Igarashi is currently COO of power-product operations for Honda Motor Co.
Mendel assumed his role at Honda in 2004 after a brief stint at Mazda and more than 28 years at Ford.
Under Mendel’s guidance, Honda has resisted the temptation to chase volume and market share targets by selling to fleet operations. While this has undoubtedly tempered Honda’s sales growth at times, it has kept the residual values the envy of the industry. Incentives, too, have been well below the industry average.
Mendel also helped oversee American Honda’s handling of the Takata airbag inflator crisis, which affected 10.7 million Honda and Acura vehicles. He served as co-leader of the automaker’s Takata response committee, which used aggressive and unusual tactics to find vehicles affected by the potentially deadly defect and make sure repairs were made.
The Acura brand itself was another crucial challenge for Mendel, and remains a trouble spot, more than 25 years after its founding. From 2005 to 2016, Acura sales actually dropped 19 percent. The near-luxury brand continues to struggle to find both customers and its own identity, settling most recently on the “Precision Crafted Performance” tagline and pegging its latest turnaround on reviving an oft-overlooked sedan lineup.
In 2014, American Honda acknowledged that the brand was adrift, and took steps to give Acura greater independence by creating a separate sales and marketing division for it. It was headed up first by Mike Accavitti and later Jon Ikeda, who currently serves as its general manager.
Prior to joining Honda, Mendel spent two years at Mazda as the brand’s chief operating officer and executive vice president of sales and marketing. He joined Mazda from Ford, where he rose through the marketing ranks during a 28-year tenure that culminated with a stint as director of marketing for Ford of Britain from 1999 to 2002.
Mendel -- who had been working with Honda for the past nine months regarding his departure -- told dealers this week of his plans. They were surprised, according to Mendel. But their anxiety was quelled upon learning that Conrad, himself a longtime Honda executive, was set to take over.
“A lot is due to them knowing who my successor is,” Mendel said. “Jeff has been around Honda and Acura for a long time now and he bleeds Honda blue.”
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