Tom Mignanelli was the first American given the CEO title at Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., in 1990, breaking through a decades-long glass ceiling that had kept Japanese executives in charge. Photo credit: NISSAN

Tom Mignanelli, a former Ford executive who gave Nissan’s U.S. sales company a transfusion of American business culture in the early 1990s, has died. He was 73.

His death occurred June 30, said his wife, Mindy Mignanelli, in an email to Automotive News. In a separate email circulated among former colleagues, she said her husband underwent surgery for a brain tumor on June 5 and never regained consciousness.

Mignanelli was the first American given the CEO title at Nissan Motor Corp. in U.S.A., in 1990, breaking through a decadeslong glass ceiling that had kept Japanese executives in charge.

Nissan’s U.S. sales results do not reflect favorably on Mignanelli’s tenure as CEO. The company stumbled through the recession in the early 1990s and he was forced out in 1993 as it lost U.S. market share to Toyota and Honda.

Still smarting from its controversial marketing decision to change its brand name from Datsun, Nissan saw its U.S. light-vehicle sales melt from 742,188 in 1987, the year it recruited Mignanelli, to 621,603 the year Nissan gave him the CEO title.

“I don’t get much stress,” Mignanelli once said. “I give it.”

Handing out stress

The salt-and-pepper-haired former general sales manager of Lincoln-Mercury was forceful and blunt in a manner more typical of Detroit’s corporate hallways than of a Tokyo boardroom. His style made him few friends among Japanese executives, according to a former colleague.

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“I don’t get much stress. I give it,” he once told BusinessWeek.

In his three years as CEO, Mignanelli pushed through changes in an aggressive style that he told the media could “give stress” to his staff.

Don Spetner, a corporate adviser at Weber Shandwick in Los Angeles who served as Nissan’s U.S. vice president of corporate communications in the late 1980s and 1990s, said Mignanelli reshaped Nissan’s outdated organization, which had myriad independent departments with unclear reporting lines. He brought in recognized business consultants to question established Nissan practices, which made the company’s old guard uncomfortable.

He reassigned executives and championed energetic young U.S. managers with a new performance-based salary system, and he broke up cozy vendor relationships and established strict rules on how Nissan employees should interact with vendors. When one vendor sent its routine annual holiday gift, exceeding Mignanelli’s newly imposed $25 value limit, he made a point of returning it, letting his entire management team hear of the return. Numerous other executives quickly made the same return.

“He was larger than life for those of us working there then,” Spetner said. “Nissan was a big company, but it had a lot of 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 Infiniti luxury brand to compete with Toyota’s Lexus and Honda’s Acura. But Infiniti stumbled out of the gate in 1989 with confusing “rocks and trees” advertising, and it floundered in its early years. Nissan also was sorely lacking a competitive product in the vital midsize sedan segment. While Toyota and Honda dealers grew rich with the Camry and Accord sedans, Nissan was virtually absent. It did not introduce the Altima until mid-1992.

Mignanelli attempted to bolster Nissan’s brand identity with a foray into high-profile racing. He spent millions of dollars on a venture called Nissan Performance Technology Inc., developing a race car that would never end up on the track.

Nissan’s worsening financial picture in Japan increased the home office’s impatience with the American CEO, according to press reports. The millions spent on racing made things worse.

U.S. sales bottomed out in 1991 at 583,350 vehicles. They rose more than 17 percent from year-earlier levels in 1993. But Mignanelli collapsed while jogging one day that year. Doctors performed heart-bypass surgery. Despite his desire to return to the job, Nissan pressed for his resignation.

Rising star

Mignanelli was a Rhode Island native, the son of Italian immigrants. He graduated from Providence College and in the late 1960s served in the Army as a commissioned officer. He spent 18 years at Ford before joining Nissan, then with U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles, as vice president of marketing. Within two months, Mignanelli added responsibility for sales. A year later, he was named executive vice president of operations.

After leaving Nissan, he was involved in some automotive service businesses and worked as an executive recruiter.

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

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

Nissan continued to struggle after his departure. Six years after Mignanelli left, as it faced bankruptcy, Nissan sold a controlling interest to France’s Renault. The French company dispatched former Michelin executive Carlos Ghosn to take control of Nissan. After becoming chief executive of the global company, one of Ghosn’s first acts was to eliminate all other CEO positions around the world, including the one that Mignanelli had used to modernize the U.S. subsidiary.