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Nissan Motor USA Chief Executive Quits

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Autos: Analysts see the skid in sales as the likely reason for Robert J. Thomas' departure.

October 07, 1997|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert J. Thomas, the highest ranking U.S. executive of an Asian auto importer, has resigned as president and chief executive of Nissan Motor Corp. USA, which has experienced a 21-month slide in sales.

Minoru Nakamura, president of Nissan North America, the holding company that controls Nissan Motor USA, will add the roles of president and chief executive of the distribution and marketing company to his present job. Nakamura also is chairman of Nissan Motor USA.

Nissan said Thomas, 52, resigned to pursue other interests, but analysts say he is taking heat for Nissan's inability to compete against the Honda and Toyota juggernauts.

"This has always been a tough job because [at corporate headquarters] in Japan they are always comparing the sales figures with Toyota and Honda," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Group in Santa Ana.

Carson-based Nissan USA's sales were down 2.3% through September after falling 3.4% last year. Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co., both based in Torrance, boosted sales the first nine months this year.

Thomas has been a leading spokesman for Asian auto makers in the U.S., orchestrating opposition to a threatened U.S. trade embargo in 1995 and working to persuade consumers and politicians that the Asian companies are critical players in the U.S. economy.

For much of the last year, however, his attention had been turned inward as he led an effort to revitalize Nissan's sales network. He recently oversaw a restructuring of the 2,600-employee sales and marketing unit that eliminated 500 jobs.

In what some industry insiders see as an early sign Thomas was heading for the door, several Nissan USA executives who lost favor with Thomas in the last year were hired by Nissan North America and transferred to the company's European operations. One industry analyst suggested that Nissan was "parking" the executives overseas until Thomas was out of the way.

Thomas, a sales and marketing specialist, could not be reached for comment.

He joined Nissan in 1982 after 10 years at Ford Motor Co. and soon was running Nissan's sales operations. In a 1988 reorganization that divided the company into three--Nissan, Infiniti and parts and service--Thomas was made a vice president and head of the Nissan division. In 1993 he succeeded Thomas Mignanelli as corporate president and CEO when Mignanelli retired after heart surgery.

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