Tom Mignanelli spent just six years at Nissan. He left a mark that has rippled through decades.
Former colleagues, reflecting last week on his death at age 73, recalled an executive bred on the sharp-elbowed turf of Detroit automakers' regional sales battles who brought a much-needed sense of command to Nissan when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1987.
"Tom Mignanelli was larger than life," said Don Spetner, Mignanelli's former public relations chief. "He was one of these guys who would take over a whole room."
It took him little time to take over Nissan. The Rhode Island native and former U.S. Army lieutenant joined Nissan as vice president of marketing after 18 years at Ford Motor Co. He earned two promotions within his first year. After three years, he was named president and CEO — the first American to claim the role at what was then known as Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A.
He attacked bureaucracy, reassigned executives and held them accountable. He championed energetic young U.S. managers with a new performance-based salary system. He also broke up cozy vendor relationships.
"I don't get much stress. I give it," Mignanelli once told BusinessWeek.
"He did a lot better with the dealers internally than he did with the Japanese culture," said Earl Hesterberg, who headed Nissan Division under Mignanelli and is now CEO of the Group 1 Automotive Inc. dealership group.
"He didn't mince words; I think that was his strength. Dealers like plain-speaking people."
Hesterberg also credits Mignanelli for supporting him as he battled the parent company over the name of Nissan's first worthy competitor to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Bosses in Japan wanted to stick with Stanza, the name of the also-ran predecessor.
Hesterberg, with Mignanelli's backing, prevailed: The car would be called the Altima. They also won a fight to introduce the midsize sedan at a price below that of its mighty rivals.
The new Altima helped Nissan eke out a rare annual sales increase in the Mignanelli era, in 1992, as the industry emerged from a recession. The next year, sales jumped 17 percent.
By that time, Mignanelli was gone. Nissan dismissed him as he recovered from quadruple-bypass heart surgery.
The company would flounder throughout the decade, only to be rescued from the brink of bankruptcy by a 1999 alliance with French automaker Renault. The new boss in Japan, Carlos Ghosn, shook the entire company to its roots in much the same way Mignanelli had rattled the U.S. arm a decade earlier.
After leaving Nissan, Mignanelli collapsed while jogging. Doctors discovered a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball.
He continued to work in various automotive services and in 2003 moved to Hawaii, where he helped elementary school kids with math and English.
On June 5, he underwent a fifth surgery to remove a brain tumor, according to an email from his wife, Mindy, that circulated among former colleagues.
He never regained consciousness. He died on June 30.
Ten years ago, as Nissan marked its 50th anniversary in the U.S., Mignanelli remembered his former employer with gratitude.
"I think the world of Nissan," he told Automotive News. "They gave me an opportunity that I wasn't going to get at Ford. They took a chance on me, and I gave them six years, and we parted on reasonable terms."
Lindsay Chappell and Tom Worobec contributed to this report.