Former Nissan U.S. Chief Bob Thomas Dies at 69

Pushed Headquarters in Japan for Significant Changes in U.S.

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Former Nissan U.S. CEO Bob Thomas
Former Nissan U.S. CEO Bob Thomas
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Bob Thomas, who led Nissan's U.S. sales operations in the 1990s before joining AutoNation Inc. and Edmunds.com, has died in Hawaii.

Mr. Thomas died Nov. 23 after a brief illness, according to friends and former colleagues. He was 69.

A memorial service is scheduled for today in Hawaii.

The 1967 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy spent 10 years in field sales with Lincoln-Mercury before joining Nissan in 1982.

He served as CEO of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. from 1993 to 1997. It was a period of growing financial strain at the carmaker's Japanese parent company, a condition that hindered Nissan's ability to bring new products to market.

Late in his Nissan tenure, as sales declined, Mr. Thomas drew flak from Nissan dealers over the company's national ad campaign. Strapped by what dealers considered a dearth of fresh products, the company shifted its advertising focus to brand awareness through humorous TV spots that said little about the cars.

One ad mimicked the movie "Toy Story," featuring a G.I. Joe doll driving away with a Barbie doll in a toy 300ZX. Another ad showed pigeons in military uniforms attempting to soil the paint of a Maxima.

The Thomas-era ads included a mysterious elderly Japanese man identified as "Mr. K" -- representing Yutaka Katayama, the gutsy Japanese executive who had introduced Nissan to the United States as Datsun.

Pressing for investment
Behind the scenes, Mr. Thomas pressed the Japanese parent company to invest more money in the U.S., particularly the growing U.S. truck market. Dealers wanted a full-sized pickup to separate Nissan from most of its Japanese competitors -- something they would not receive until the arrival of the Titan in 2003.

The U.S. company's urgings would result in the development of the surprisingly popular mid-sized Xterra SUV in 1998.

In a 2008 Automotive News portrait marking the 50th anniversary of Nissan in the United States, Mr. Thomas was credited with:

• Pushing Nissan's dealers to adopt contiguous marketing organizations, where one dealer could control all stores in a particular area.

• Launching consumer-based pricing at Infiniti to eliminate haggling and reliance on incentives by bringing the sticker price closer to the transaction price.

• Creating Nissan Plus, a program designed to protect residual values by allocating off-lease Nissans to dealers at set prices.

• Adopting a full-time casual-attire policy for employees.

Mr. Thomas left Nissan in 1997, two years before the company would be rescued from bankruptcy by France's Renault.

Other moves
He joined the fledgling public dealership chain AutoNation as executive VP-marketing strategy.

He briefly left the auto industry when he became CEO of Dreamlot.com in Mountainview, Calif.

In 2000, he was recruited as North American CEO of Edmunds.com, the young fast-growing online auto information site.

"We asked him to run the U.S. operations while we tried to expand Edmunds into Europe," recalls Jeremy Anwyl, former vice chairman of the company.

"Everyone always thought of Bob as a big-picture-strategy executive. But it turned out he was also a really good hands-on operations guy and people person. He brought us wonderful stability and calm during a period of growth. He took a lot of pride in helping the young people here blossom and develop."

Mr. Thomas made his retirement home in Hawaii, where he regularly golfed with his wife, Avis.

Lindsay Chappell is a reporter for Automotive News.

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