Honda Motor Co.’s top U.S. sales executive John Mendel is retiring to start a micro-distillery with his sons and will be replaced by company marketing veteran Jeff Conrad.
Mendel, 62, has been a leading voice on auto sales trends in the U.S., often criticizing rivals for lower-priced sales to fleet companies that hurt the resale values of retail customers’ vehicles. As a sales executive since 2004, Mendel endured the collapse of the U.S. market eight years ago, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled factory production in 2011, and record recalls of Takata Corp. air bags that have hit Honda hardest.
“We’ve had three years of record Honda sales, survived the earthquake and tsunami and the Lehman shock and everything else; this is a really good time,” Mendel said in a phone interview Monday of his decision to retire. “I feel like Michael Jordan. Not from a personal accomplishment standpoint, but I’ve been very lucky to represent these great brands.”
Mendel revealed his retirement Monday night at a dinner following the Honda Classic golf tournament in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to a group of about 100 dealers, whom he said took the news as “mixed blessings.” He said his replacement, Conrad, is well known and respected, having worked at Honda for 35 years.
Conrad has been senior vice president and general manager of Honda’s U.S. auto division and now takes on additional marketing and sales responsibility for Acura, the luxury brand for the Tokyo-based company.
Honda’s sales in the U.S., the automaker’s largest market, rose 3.2% last year to 1.64 million. Honda’s CR-V was the top selling small sport utility vehicle in the U.S., the hottest segment of the market. Its Accord sedan is a perennial runner-up for top selling car to the Toyota Camry.
In keeping deliveries to rental-car companies and other fleet customers to a minimum, Honda has been an outlier among major automakers that typically rely on lower-margin bulk sales to keep factories running and help boost market share.
“We didn’t jump on the bulk sales stuff,” Mendel said of what he considered his proudest accomplishment. “We never allowed ourselves to stray from that path.”
The veteran auto executive, who worked at Mazda Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. prior to Honda, said he will continue to keep a role in the business by accepting auto-related board positions and consulting.
For the moment, Mendel anticipates his focus after the retirement takes effect April 1 will be on the launch of Devil’s Creek Distillery in Mammoth Lakes, California, a new family venture with his two sons.
“We’ll start producing in May, with clear spirits first, vodka, gin and a moonshine product, all corn based,” Mendel said. “At the same time, we’ll be putting up some bourbon and rye for future release and consumption. I’ve learned a lot about the distilling business lately.”