As part of a series of management changes announced Tuesday, 62-year-old John Mendel will step down as the executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co.’s automotive divisions.
A one-time Ford executive who joined Honda in 2004, Mendel was the highest-ranking U.S. member of the Honda team and given credit for not only delivering a series of record sales for the automaker but also for helping guide it through some potentially serious problems, including the recall of millions of vehicles equipped with faulty Takata airbags.
Mendel, well-regarded not only within the company but also by franchised dealers and the automotive media, will be replaced by Jeff Conrad, currently the general manager of the Honda division. In his new role he will, among other things, oversee the high-line Acura division.
The shake-up at the top of American Honda was announced along with several other senior management moves, the third-largest Japanese maker noting it traditionally reveals major executive changes in February. Other shifts include:
* Masayuki Igarashi will become executive vice president for auto, auto operations and export sales for American Honda. He has been serving as chief operating office for Honda Motor Co.’s power-production operations;
* Dave Gardner will become president of Honda Canada, succeeding the retiring Jerry Chenkin. Gardner has been senior vice president of the Canadian unit.
All the changes announced Tuesday will take effect on April 1.
For his part, Mendel will leave the automaker on a high note. It saw U.S. sales climb 3.2% last year, to a record 1.64 million. One key to that growth has been Honda’s increasing focus on light trucks, ranging from the latest-generation Pilot and CR-V crossovers to the reborne Ridgeline pickup. That compact model was named North American Truck of the Year by a jury of 60 U.S. and Canadian journalists in January.
Mendel joined Honda in 2004. He had served for 28 years with Ford Motor Co. before briefly moving over to the Detroit maker’s long-time Japanese affiliate, Mazda.
During his tenure, Mendel has had to steer Honda over some serious speed bumps, helping guide the Japanese parent’s product decisions while also helping direct an increasingly autonomous U.S. operation.
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Among the challenges he faced, perhaps none was more serious than the Takata airbag fiasco. The Japanese supplier’s faulty airbags have been linked to at least 15 deaths, most of them in the U.S. And while dozens of different automakers have used Takata devices, none was more closely linked to the supplier than Honda. About 20% of the vehicles recalled to replace Takata airbags to date, about 10.7 million, were Hondas.
Mendel was a co-leader of a committee set up by Honda to try to track down vehicles using Takata airbags and get them repaired – a difficult challenge, as many were over a decade old and had changed hands several times.
But there were other issues. Earlier in Mendel’s tenure, Honda landed a series of duds, products like the CrossTour and CR-Z, many designed for other markets that failed to connect with U.S. buyers. He helped steer the company’s focus back to core models such as the Civic, Accord, Pilot and CR-V. Honda also toppled long-time minivan king Chrysler with its own Odyssey model.
Mendel also bucked industry trend, refusing to dive into the fleet market many competitors use to prop up demand – especially during times when retail sales begin to slow, as has been happening in recent months.
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For his part, Conrad is expected to follow many of the strategies outlined by Mendel, including the near-complete emphasis on the retail market.
Conrad joined Honda in 1982 as a district sales manager. Like Mendel, he was recruited from Ford Motor Co., where he had been working since 1975. Over the years, he has served in a variety of roles, assuming the general manager spot with Honda in 2014.
Prior to that, Conrad had run the Acura brand in the U.S., and he will now oversee its operations, with brand general manager Jon Ikeda reporting to him. Acura is likely to be the biggest challenge Conrad will face in his new role. It has scored well with sport-utility products like the MDX, but continues to struggle with its passenger car line-up, including sedans such as the RLX and TLX.
At 161,360, Acura sales were down 8.9% last year, though its trucks did show momentum.
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In his new role, Conrad will retain his duties as head of the Honda brand. But some additional revisions could follow in the months ahead.