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Tom Mignanelli First American To Head Nissan Dies At 73

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Tom Mignanelli, a former Ford manager who gave Nissan's US distribution company a transfusion of American business culture in the early 1990s, has died. He was 73.

His death occurred on June 30, his wife, Mindy Mignanelli, said in an email Automobile news, In a separate email distributed among former colleagues, she said that her husband had surgery on June 5 for a brain tumor and never regained consciousness.

Mignanelli was the first American In 1990, he received the CEO title at Nissan Motor Corp. in the USA. He broke a long glass ceiling that held Japanese executives in his hand.

Nissan's sales results in the US do not reflect Mignanelli's tenure as CEO. The company stumbled through the recession in the early 1990s and was forced to lose its market share in Toyota and Honda in 1993.

From his controversial marketing decision to change his brand name from Datsun, Nissan shot his sales of light vehicles in the US from 742,188 in 1987, when he recruited Mignanelli, to 621,603 a year when Nissan gave him the CEO title.

"I do not get much stress," Mignanelli once said. "I give it."

Hand out stress

The salty-peppered former General Sales Manager of Lincoln-Mercury was powerful and blunt in a manner more typical of Detroit's corporate corridors than a boardroom in Tokyo. His style has made him some friends among Japanese executives, according to a former colleague.

"I do not get much stress, I give it," he once said work week,

In his three years as CEO, Mignanelli made changes in an aggressive style, which he said the media could "stress" his employees.

Don Spetner, a corporate consultant at Weber Shandwick, Los Angeles, who was Nissan's US vice president of corporate communications in the late 1980s and 1990s, said Mignanelli redesigned the outdated Nissan organization, which had countless independent departments with unclear reporting lines. He brought in recognized business consultants to question established Nissan practices, which made the old guard of the company uncomfortable.

He hired executives and championed energetic young US executives with a new performance-based salary system, and broke relationships between sellers and set strict rules on how Nissan associates should interact with sellers. When a salesman handed over his routine annual Christmas gift, overcoming Mignanelli's new set price limit of $ 25, he made it his mission to return it and let his entire management team know about the return. Many other leaders came back quickly.

"He was larger than life for those of us who worked there," said Spetner. "Nissan was a big company, but it had many outdated ways that needed to be brought into the 20th century – Tom came in and changed them all."

Big challenges

But Nissan's challenges in the 1990s proved too big for anyone.

The automaker launched the luxury brand Infiniti to compete with Toyota's Lexus and Honda Acura. But Infiniti stumbled in 1989 with confusing "rocks and trees" advertising out of the gate and fell in the early years to falter. Nissan also urgently lacked a competitive product in the Vital mid-size sedan. While Toyota and Honda dealers got rich with the sedans Camry and Accord, Nissan was virtually absent. The Altima was introduced in mid-1992.

Mignanelli attempted to strengthen Nissan's brand identity with a push into high-profile racing. He spent millions of dollars on a project called Nissan Performance Technology Inc. and developed a racing car that would never end up on the track.

Nissan's deteriorating financial situation in Japan increased the home office's impatience towards the American CEO, according to press reports. The millions spent on racing aggravated the situation.

US sales peaked at 583,350 vehicles in 1991. They rose in 1993 by more than 17 percent over the previous year. However, Mignanelli collapsed while jogging one day. Doctors performed a cardiac bypass surgery. Despite his desire to return to work, Nissan pressed for his resignation.

Rising star

Mignanelli was a native of Rhode Island, the son of Italian immigrants. He graduated from Providence College and served in the army in the late 1960s as a sergeant. He spent 18 years at Ford before moving to Nissan then to Los Angeles US headquarters as Vice President of Marketing. Within two months, Mignanelli has taken over responsibility for the sale. One year later, he was named Executive Vice President of Operations.

After leaving Nissan, he worked in several automotive service companies and worked as a recruiter.

Mignanelli also fought recurring brain tumors. He retired to Hawaii in 2003.

He has spent the past 15 years volunteering at a local elementary school and has been helping second, third and fourth graders with English and Maths, said Mindy Mignanelli.

Nissan continued to fight after his departure. Six years after Mignanelli left the company, Nissan sold a controlling interest in the French Renault. The French company sent former Michelin chief Carlos Ghosn to take control of Nissan. After Ghosn was appointed Chief Executive of the global company, one of Ghosn's first actions was to eliminate all other CEO positions around the world, including those that Mignanelli had used to modernize its US subsidiary.