Nissan's 50 years in America

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50 PEOPLE FOR 50 YEARS
Parts made it run, but people made it hum

An automaker is the sum of many parts -- autos, engines, sales, dealerships. But the soul of the enterprise is people. Their goals, victories, disappointments and friendships give an automaker its character. The Japanese pioneers in 1958 dreamed outrageous dreams. Fifty years later, Japanese, French and Americans live the pioneers' dreams, crafting new models in Nashville. The 50-year journey is best seen through the eyes of people who lived it. So, in this section, we present 50 people who made enduring contributions to Nissan in North America. -- Keith Crain, Publisher

The top 50 people who made enduring contributions
to Nissan's 50 years in America


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Yutaka Katayama

On the surface, it's easy to describe Yutaka Katayama's accomplishments. He was Nissan's founding father in America. Starting with nothing in California in 1960, he built an enduring foundation of dealers, products, customers, advertising agencies and executives.But this would utterly fail to capture the man, universally known as "Mr. K." 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Clarence Talley

Growing up in Depression-era Dallas, Clarence Talley used money he earned selling ice to take the train to New Orleans. On the docks, the teenaged Talley bargained with importers who shipped in wares from faraway places. Talley knew he could turn a profit selling the novelties door to door in his hometown. Thirty years later, that same entrepreneurial spirit led Talley to Nissan Motor Co. and its fledgling Datsun brand. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jim Morton

In 2005, the board's decision was unanimous. Nissan North America would move its headquarters a year later from Southern California to Nashville. The man assigned to carry out the traumatic move was Jim Morton, senior vice president in North America. More than half the staff of about 1,200, and several key executives, remained in their beloved California. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Marvin Runyon

The picture was one of Marvin Runyon's favorites. Taken June 16, 1983, it shows workers at Nissan's new Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant smiling and applauding as their white-haired CEO drives the first American-made Datsun truck off the production line. Runyon's right hand is on the wheel, but it's his left that tells the story. Raised in a high fist, it exudes equal parts victory and defiance. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Pete Brock

In the 1960s, Datsun was known mostly for inexpensive sedans and pickups. But Yutaka Katayama, president of Nissan North America, was a racing fan. And in 1969, Datsun added the sporty 240Z to its lineup. Enter racer Pete Brock. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Yoshikazu Hanawa

Yoshikazu Hanawa was 11 years old when World War II ended. He recalls pulling greens he found along the roadside to take home for the family. “We were just managing to live one day at a time,” he says. That determination to survive led him to a rare distinction among Japanese executives. He sold his company to save it. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Bill Bruce

In 1989, Nissan Motor Co. launched its luxury Infiniti Division with underwhelming products. Bill Bruce, Infiniti's low-key general manager, was unfazed. Satisfy the customers, he said, and sales will come. Bruce shaped a retail network that set the standard for customer service. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jack Collins

Carlos Ghosn gets the credit for Nissan Motor Co.'s product revival after he became CEO in 1999. But Jack Collins, the top product planner for Nissan North America from 1998 to 2006, was the man who lobbied Ghosn and Nissan Motor product czar Patrick Pelata to undertake the costly and risky renovation of the U.S. lineup. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


Shin Maki

The first Datsuns imported to the United States came at a price: Shin Maki's teeth. The young Nissan engineer was part of a four-man group that tested a pickup and car in California in 1958 in an attempt to prove the vehicles worthy of the U.S. market. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Bob Link

Today, it seems odd that leaving Triumph to work for Datsun would be considered a long-shot career move. But for Bob Link, it paid off. Link was leery of jumping ship from Triumph to the upstart Japanese brand. But the two automakers' Los Angeles offices were near each other, and Link often ran into Yutaka Katayama and lieutenant Ray Hoen at the same lunch spots. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Mitsuya "Scape" Goto

Like a scout guiding a wagon train across the frontier, Mitsuya Goto helped Nissan Motor Co. find Smyrna, Tenn., for the company's first U.S. assembly plant. During the six-year site search, Goto says, he had “the personal pleasure of meeting over 35 governors, some former governors and a number of mayors.” 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Soichi Kawazoe

Nissan executive Soichi Kawazoe was an engineer at heart. So in the early 1960s when he learned that a Datsun dealer in Norfolk, Va., was having trouble fixing oil leaks, he immediately flew to Norfolk. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Takashi Ishihara

Takashi Ishihara rammed through two decisions that defined Nissan Motor Co. in the United States. The brusque former rugby player championed Nissan's first U.S. assembly plant despite fierce opposition at home. And he axed the Datsun name. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jerry Hirshberg

Before Jerry Hirshberg, there was no Nissan Design International. There was just a dirt lot in the rolling hills of La Jolla, Calif., about 10 miles up the coast from San Diego. But when Nissan decided it wanted to create an American design presence in 1980, it looked no further than Hirshberg, then in charge of Buick and Pontiac design at General Motors. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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John Parker

In the 1960s, ad man John Parker did whatever it took to sell Datsuns. He hired singing cowboy Roy Rogers to hawk SUVs. He used his family members as models in ads. He flew to Japan to beg executives for TV money. But by the time the oil crises hit in the 1970s, Nissan Motor Co. was poised to sell lots of fuel-sipping vehicles in the United States. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Roy Rogers

Singing cowboy Roy Rogers was known for riding off into the sunset on his faithful horse, Trigger. But the TV star of the 1950s and "60s also promoted another kind of horsepower: the Datsun Patrol. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Bob Thomas

By turns brilliant and mercurial, Bob Thomas endured the misfortune of being Nissan's U.S. president during its mid-1990s free fall. Thomas was stuck with a daunting to-do list. Car sales were dipping. Nissan was short of trucks during the rise of the SUV. Sales of its Infiniti brand were off compared with Lexus. And residuals were plummeting because of a glut of off-lease cars. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Teruo Uchino

Teruo Uchino was a 28-year-old rookie designer working on his first redesign when he was drafted onto a team of veterans to replace Nissan's lackluster 410 Bluebird in the mid-1960s. But the greenhorn hardly sat in humble deference to his elders. In jarringly un-Japanese fashion, Uchino instead upstaged them with a breakthrough design that changed the company's history. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Morrie Sage

Morrie Sage, owner of the best-selling single-point Nissan store in the country, still communicates with the revered “Mr. K.” Yutaka Katayama, father of the Z car and the first president of Nissan's U.S. operations, told Sage that a Datsun store one day would make him a millionaire. He was right. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Bob Thomas

As Nissan grew from an upstart into a significant player in the United States, the company's public voice in America was Bob Thomas and Associates, a tiny public relations agency in Redondo Beach, Calif. It was unusual for a small, outside agency to manage a major company's PR. But Thomas pulled it off with sound instincts, a close relationship with Nissan's top Japanese executive in the United States and a large Rolodex. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Nobe Wakatsuki

They said I was crazy. So reads the brief historical footnote assigned to an otherwise forgotten young Japanese man living in Los Angeles: Nobushige Wakatsuki, known to Americans as Nobe. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Earl Hesterberg

In 1992, Nissan was poised to launch its first serious effort to compete with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Earl Hesterberg, head of Nissan Division in the United States, was certain that Nissan was about to blow it. He picked a fight with Nissan executives in Japan. Tempers flared on both sides of the Pacific. Nissan executives in Japan struggled with an unprecedented affront to their management culture. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Carlos Ghosn

The basic problem facing Nissan North America in 1999 when Carlos Ghosn arrived was the same one facing Nissan of Japan: The company was thinking too small. “There was not enough ambition in the company, on either side,” Ghosn recalls today from his Tokyo office. “I thought neither our Japanese executives nor our American executives understood.” 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Lee Clow

Lee Clow's persona is surfer-dude-does-Madison Avenue. But don't let the sandals, shorts and surfboard divert you. The persona cloaks a creative marketing mind that has delivered some of the most memorable advertising in modern culture. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jerry Benefield

Before the Carlos Ghosn era started in 1999, Nissan thrived in the United States with a basic strategy: Make inexpensive, bulletproof small cars and trucks for American families. Jerry Benefield made that happen. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Yutaka Kume

Yutaka Kume, president of Nissan from 1985 to 1992, knew what it took to fix his struggling company. Nissan desperately needed to energize a plodding bureaucracy, listen to customers and design sexier cars. Kume worked hard to get it all done. And during his tenure, he launched the luxury Infiniti brand in the United States in 1989 and invested in U.S. operations. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Doug Betts

Nissan had a crisis on its hands in 2004. The Quest minivan, assembled at the new plant in Canton, Miss., was stung by poor quality reviews from J.D. Power and Associates. To fix the problem, the company hired Doug Betts, a quality expert from Toyota's truck factory in Princeton, Ind. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Tim McCarthy

On Christmas Eve in 1997, the hopes of a team of young American Olympic athletes nearly went up in smoke -- before any competition occurred -- when a fire destroyed their bobsled. Within hours of hearing the news, Nissan North America Inc. put up $30,000 for a replacement sled. Tim MacCarthy, the company's vice president for government affairs, had engineered the quick rescue. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jed Connelly

Jed Connelly endured Nissan's lean times of the late 1990s. So after Carlos Ghosn took command of Nissan Motor Co. in 1999, the automaker's comeback was a rush. As the company's top sales and marketing executive in the United States, Connelly guided a wave of sales generated by such vehicles as the 2002 Altima, 2003 350Z sports car and 2003 Infiniti G35. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Atsushi Nakatsuji

Atsushi Nakatsuji has two nicknames at Nissan Motor Co. English speakers know him as “Pete.” Japanese colleagues call him “Chief Negotiator.” He earned the second moniker by wrangling a partnership with Ford Motor Co. that took Nissan into uncharted waters. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Dave Hubbard

In 1989, Infiniti's “Rocks and Trees” TV commercials, which showed no cars, ran for only five weeks. But today, the campaign is an icon of the wrong way to launch a brand. Dave Hubbard, Infiniti's advertising manager, wholeheartedly supported the campaign. And he says Infiniti sales in the first year were fine. Would he do it again? No. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Joe Opre

Joe Opre helped shape Nissan's public image in a 26-year marketing career -- and he has the scars to show for it. He guided the brand-name switch from Datsun to Nissan in the 1980s. And he was involved -- for better or worse -- in the infamous “Rocks and Trees” advertising campaign, which tried to launch the Infiniti brand without showing any vehicles. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Patrick Pelata

Patrick Pelata was from Paris and a stranger to the North American market. But he became the best friend of U.S. dealers. After Renault acquired Nissan in 1999, Pelata became Nissan's top product planner in Tokyo. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Yoshiyuki Kimura

In 1990, Yoshiyuki Kimura landed a plum assignment. Nissan named him chief engineer, at age 49, for the original VQ series of V-6 engines. Today, 7 million engines later, the lightweight, free-revving powerplant is the company's award-winning workhorse. It cemented Nissan's reputation for top-notch engineering, particularly for engines. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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"Mad Mike" Taylor

In 1995, a year before Nissan killed the legendary Z car, Mike Taylor traveled to Japan. His mission: Persuade the company to keep the faith with Z car nuts and someday bring it back. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Diane Allen

When Carlos Ghosn assumed command of Nissan in 1999, he was clear: He wanted bold designs for the faltering Japanese automaker. Diane Allen, a young Nissan designer in Los Angeles, was ready. She designed two key vehicles that contributed significantly to Nissan's comeback, the 350Z sports car and the Titan full-sized pickup. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Chuck King

After 17 years at Chrysler Corp., Chuck King joined Nissan North America in 1972 as head of sales and marketing. His first crisis arrived on the docks in Seattle. As he later told the Los Angeles Times, a boatload of Datsuns showed up -- orange, yellow, red and green ones, all with bright blue interiors. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Larry Dominique

In the late 1990s Larry Dominique created a critical product -- a full-sized pickup -- that changed Nissan's identity. The project signaled to U.S. consumers, dealers and competitors that Nissan was safely past its 1990s-era financial troubles and would remain a fully committed player for the long term. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Mark Igo

Nissan's luxury Infiniti Division could have imploded over the past six years for many reasons. One big reason it did not was Mark Igo. Igo, general manager of Infiniti since 2003, kept the division's business humming smoothly through a touchy period. Nissan overhauled Infiniti's product lineup, repositioned its marketing and left dealers without new products for more than a year. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Mitsuhiko Yamashita

In 2002, Carlos Ghosn's Nissan Revival Plan had just turned an anemic money loser into a carmaker with some of the fattest profit margins in the industry. It was time to shift from recovery to growth. So Mitsuhiko Yamashita was dispatched from Japan to America to head what soon would be a driving force in Nissan's resurgence -- Nissan Technical Center North America Inc. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Shiro Nakamura

Nissan's vehicle designs had become hit-and-miss in the 1990s. For every respectable 1993 Nissan Quest or inspired "99 Xterra, there was a dowdy "92 Maxima or dull "99 Infiniti G20. That was unacceptable to Carlos Ghosn, the executive dispatched by Renault SA to run Nissan Motor Co. in 1999. Ghosn's headhunters came calling on Shiro Nakamura, head of design at Isuzu Motors Ltd., to oversee a new era of Nissan global design. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Tom Mignanelli

In 1987, Nissan slipped behind Honda as the No. 2 Japanese automaker in America. The Nissan sales operation's staff was bloated. Dealers were discontent. The company was unfocused, still trying to shake off the brand change from Datsun to Nissan. Nissan's Japanese executives decided they needed an American to invigorate their sales. They hired Tom Mignanelli, the straight-talking national sales manager of Lincoln-Mercury. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Dick Roberts

Every automaker seeks passionate owners. Starting in the late 1960s, racer Dick Roberts attracted them by the thousands to Datsun. Roberts was trained as a mechanical engineer, but the racing bug bit him in 1963. After three years driving Porsches, his attention turned to the Datsun Roadster's economy and performance. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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William Cushing

When Nissan opened its first U.S. sales office in 1960, the 18-person staff had one mission: find dealers -- and it didn't matter who. Into that scene stepped William Cushing in 1961 when he was named sales manager for Datsun's San Francisco region. Cushing worked out of his home. His wife was his secretary. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Emil Hassan

When Nissan sought a piece of the U.S. market for full-sized pickups and SUVs, it needed a new approach to American automaking. Emil Hassan delivered the solution. The result -- the $1.4 billion Canton plant, just north of Jackson, Miss. -- gave Nissan a flexible, low-cost truck plant where it could operate with small volumes and market uncertainties as it established a toehold. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Jane Nakagawa

When CEO Carlos Ghosn ordered a product revival in 1999, he wisely decided to trust local product experts in major markets -- such as Jane Nakagawa in North America. Nakagawa specialized in the mysterious process of defining customers' needs before even they know what they want. What Ghosn wanted was research grounded in edgier, more creative thinking. That was Nakagawa's hallmark, and Ghosn made her head of advanced planning. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


Chester Luby

In 1958, Nissan Motor Co. divided the United States between two distributors. The eastern 22 states went to car dealer Chester Luby. The decision could have been a gold mine for Luby. But it was not to be. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Louis Schweitzer

In early 1999, Nissan Motor Co.'s long quest for a deep-pocketed white knight ended. France's Renault SA, led by Chairman Louis Schweitzer, invested $5.4 billion for a 36.8 percent stake in the Japanese company. It was a huge gamble. Schweitzer later admitted that he “bet the farm” that Nissan could be saved. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Mr. K

Yutaka Katayama, the legendary "Mr. K," was an unusual Japanese executive in America who was comfortable in the public eye. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1960, Katayama, a marketing guy, happily started appearing with celebrities, race car drivers and actresses to promote Datsun. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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Ray Lemke

In 1958, independent auto dealer Ray Lemke wasn't much of a salesman. In fact, he preferred to fix cars. He owned a mom-and-pop garage in San Diego. On the side, his Economy Car Center sold scooters and small foreign cars. Humble? Yes. But ideal for Nissan scouts looking for dealers. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


Richard McCutcheon

Richard McCutcheon liked Datsun pickups when he saw them firsthand banging over the tattered roads of postwar Japan. If they could take that kind of pounding, he reasoned, how durable would they be on better U.S. roads? McCutcheon would find out in 1958. 12:01 am U.S. ET | May 19


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