Honda Makes Bold Move But Will It Stick?

Christie Schweinsberg Blogger, Senior Editor

July 30, 2015

3 Min Read
Honda Makes Bold Move But Will It Stick?

Honda has appointed Jon Ikeda to replace Mike Accavtitti as head of Acura in the U.S.

It’s a shocking change for two reasons: Accavitti had Acura on a hot streak, with sales up 11.7% through June and Ikeda is a designer by training.

Yes, a designer is going to run a Honda division. That’s a pretty bold move for an automaker that has sourced its top executives from more traditional backgrounds.

Although he was first an engineer, Accavitti is a longtime sales guy, with most of his working life spent at Chrysler.

His predecessor Jeff Conrad, current Honda Div. SVP and general manager, has a business degree and worked his way up through district and regional sales posts.

Ikeda’s boss, John Mendel, current American Honda executive vice president, has an MBA from Duke and held various sales and marketing positions with Ford and Mazda before joining Honda 11 years ago.

Dick Colliver, Mendel’s predecessor and a one-time Acura chief, also cut his teeth in sales and marketing for Mazda, as well as GM.

So, yeah, this is pretty unprecedented.

At most automakers you’d be hard-pressed to find an employee more passionate about its brands than a designer. But putting a designer in charge? That’s still a rarity, at least in the U.S. market.

And if history is any guide Ikeda’s tenure may be short-lived, possibly through no fault of his own.

In 2009, coincidentally replacing then-Dodge chief Accavitti, FCA U.S. designer Ralph Gilles was named Dodge president and CEO. Gilles held that spot for two years, before moving to FCA’s niche Street and Racing Technologies brand. Today he's back in familiar territory, as head of design for FCA.

But Gilles wasn’t dismissed from Dodge for poor sales, as the brand grew volume from 327,574 units in 2009 to 451,044 in 2011, WardsAuto data shows.

Rather, FCA characterized the switch as giving racing-enthusiast Gilles an opportunity to create magic with SRT, now a full-fledged brand rather than just a trim level.

Also in 2009, Bryan Nesbitt was plucked from General Motors’ design studio to become Cadillac general manager.

But just one year later GM moved Nesbitt back to design, naming him executive director-advanced concept group. Today’s he’s Buick’s global design chief.

Sales at Cadillac also improved during Nesbitt’s brief tenure, but GM North American President Mark Reuss in 2010 said, “We need Bryan more than ever in design.”

And then there’s Henrik Fisker of his (now Chinese-owned) eponymously named company. Need I say more?

But it hasn’t all been bad news for designers in the executive suite.

In re-reading the still-fantastic WardsAuto feature story from 2009, Auto Maker Dares to Put Designer in Charge, I’m reminded of Tom Gale's track record.

Gale helmed Chrysler design during the company’s glory years of the early 1990s and was elevated to chief of Chrysler’s International Operations from 1993-1997. The results? The unit’s annual revenue grew from $1.5 billion to $5 billion.

“Everybody says you don’t have the same business acumen, perhaps, as a person from another discipline,” Gale told WardsAuto of a deck that can be stacked against designers as anything other than designers. But pointing to that $5 billion figure noted, “It can be done.”

Hopefully Ikeda, whom Mendel praised as “the ultimate advocate for Acura (with) a record of solid achievement and success” and who spent time outside the studio as a product planner, will have an experience that mimics Gale’s trajectory and not Fisker’s.

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