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Clifford Schmillen, 1921 - 2008

Honda executive led sales boom in U.S.

January 11, 2008|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Clifford Schmillen, who fought as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II and played a key role in driving the growth of Japanese automaker Honda in the United States, died Sunday in Palos Verdes. He was 86.

He died of complications related to double pneumonia, his family said.

In 1976, the year Schmillen was named national auto sales manager at American Honda Motor Co., the company sold 150,929 cars in the United States. When he retired in 1990 as executive vice president, Honda's annual sales in the U.S. were approaching 855,000.

"He was there when Honda's product lineup was the Civic and the Accord," said George Peterson, a consultant at AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin. "The products were spookily good. I was at Ford at the time, and we used to say, 'How do they do this stuff?' "

In addition to helping orchestrate Honda's growth in the U.S., Schmillen was instrumental in two important initiatives: the opening of Honda's Marysville, Ohio, auto assembly plant in 1982 and the launch of the Acura luxury car line in 1986. Both were firsts for a Japanese automaker and positioned Honda as a serious challenger to the Big Three in Detroit as well as to homeland competitors Toyota and Nissan, which eventually rolled out the Lexus and Infiniti luxury brands and also opened U.S. assembly plants.

"He had a great knack for understanding the retail side of the business and picking good people who made great Honda dealers," said Honda public relations chief Kurt Antonius, whom Schmillen hired away from General Motors in 1983.

Born in Minnesota in 1921, Schmillen flew bombing missions against the Japanese as a Marine pilot in the Philippines during World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and retired as a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, according to his family.

After working for now-defunct American Motors and briefly running a Rambler dealership, Schmillen joined Honda as a sales representative in 1964, when the company sold only motorcycles in the U.S. (The company sold its first car in the U.S., the diminutive N600, in 1970.)

When he assumed responsibility for U.S. auto sales in the mid-1970s, Americans were so desperate for Honda's fuel-efficient offerings that dealers ran out of cars, disappointing customers offering to pay as much as $1,000 above sticker price for an Accord sedan.

In 1982, Schmillen was promoted to senior vice president for automotive sales with responsibility for advertising, distribution and product planning.

Schmillen's soft-spoken manner and ability to charm dealers, the news media and fellow Honda employees -- both American and Japanese -- was legendary. A 1985 Adweek article observed that Schmillen's "blue blazer, Ben Franklin glasses and penny-loafers style would more likely get him cast as a benevolent professor than as the man who has helped shape Honda's U.S. success."

David Conant, owner of Norm Reeves Honda in Cerritos, recalled a visit Schmillen paid in the mid-'70s to the small dealership Conant's father owned in Fond du Lac, Wis. Conant described how the executive sat on the edge of his father's desk, taking time out for a dealer who moved only 25 cars a month.

"That meant so much to my dad," Conant said. "When he sold his dealership in 1988, the only physical asset he took with him was that desk. I asked him why and he said, 'Cliff Schmillen sat on that desk.' "

The only negative mark on Schmillen's record, Peterson said, was the scandal that hit Honda in the mid-1990s over allegations that senior executives had accepted kickbacks from dealers during the 1980s in exchange for favorable consideration in allocating rare stocks of Accords and Civics and in granting coveted dealership franchises. In 1995, two former Honda executives were sentenced to prison on fraud charges for their roles in the scheme.

Although Schmillen was never implicated in the scandal, which broke after he retired in 1990, he acknowledged that he was warned of wrongdoing in the sales organization, but said the warnings were based on rumors. Still, he said in 1995 interview, "a lot of us are wishing that we'd done things a lot differently."

"It happened when he was the boss," Peterson said. "If he didn't know about it, he should've known about it, and if he did, he should've done something about it."

Conant said the episode didn't tarnish Schmillen's image within Honda and its dealer network, noting that the former sales chief was regularly invited to meetings of the automaker's dealer advisory board.

"We all had tremendous respect for his breadth of knowledge, but even more for his decency, because he was a really, really wonderful guy," Conant said.

Schmillen is survived by two sons, David and Kurt; and a daughter, Christie Cluff.

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martin.zimmerman@ latimes.com

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