“In England at the time, if you didn’t know what to do, you became an accountant,” says retired Honda Canada CEO Jerry Chenkin.
“Cars were my passion. Accounting wasn’t my passion ... While studying to be an accountant, I would buy and sell used cars to make ends meet and to pay for the vehicles I just had to drive.”
By the summer of 1975, Chenkin finished his accounting studies, got married and arrived in Canada.
In August of that year, he was flipping through a local newspaper in the newlyweds’ Toronto apartment, sitting on the floor because they couldn’t afford furniture, when he saw an ad from Canadian Honda Motor Limited.
“They were looking for an accounting supervisor. I thought, ‘I like cars and I’m an accountant. How cool would it be to work for a car company?’”
He went to the interview and began the next day, remaining until March 31 this year. Since 2013 he had been CEO of Honda Canada, the first executive not from Japan to hold the position.
MOTORCYCLES MORE THAN CARS
Chenkin soon realized he was working for a motorcycle company, not a car company.
In 1975, Honda Canada sold about 80,000 motorcycles and about 4,000 cars, all first-generation Civics. “So I learned the motorcycle business.”
A few years later, Chenkin seemed to be the one his Japanese bosses turned to when they needed to sort out problem areas. “When there was trouble, like in the credit department, I was told to support them. I didn’t know credit, but it’s still about numbers, so I ran the credit department.” He was sent into similar “fix-it” roles in finance, treasury and administration.
“For 10 years, it was never a dull moment. Always something going on and always learning.”
Chenkin believes his rapport with the Japan management centred on his ability to speak English clearly and slowly, and with a British accent. “They could understand me.”
At the 10-year mark, in 1985, Chenkin made the pivotal move to sales, when he was asked to run the Ontario Zone Office.
“They must have thought, why the hell is an accountant running the sales operation for Ontario? I wondered the same thing myself.”
He quickly immersed himself in all aspects of that side of the business, especially dealer issues.
Three years later he was back at the head office, taking on roles with increasing responsibly in the rapidly expanding company, including stints running Acura (1994-2001) and the motorcycle, ATV and power-equipment division (2001-2004).
In 2007, he was named executive vice-president of Honda Canada, the second in-command position.
FIRST ‘LOCAL’ PRESIDENT
Takashi Sekiguchi arrived from another global post to become Honda Canada president in 2010. After he saw how well the company was run, Sekiguchi would often remark to Chenkin, “Why do we need a Japanese president here?”
“I told him he was my 13th president, and didn’t know if that was going to be lucky for him or not.”
When Sekiguchi was reassigned, Chenkin was named as his successor, becoming the first Canadian to hold the top position, and the first “local” president in any of Honda’s major markets.
No one explained to Chenkin why the pattern was broken, but he has a theory.
“If they were going to try to localize one country with local management, why not chose a country which is safe, stable, and the sales growth is sustainable? You also have an associate here [himself] with 38 years of experience with the company. And you have a very strong management team that had been around for a long time to back him up. Overall, it was just a massive vote of confidence for the Canadian operations of Honda.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
One career highlight is being a part of Honda’s expanding and award-winning production facilities in Canada. During his tenure as president, Chenkin oversaw $1.3 billion of investment in the two plants in Alliston, Ont. Unlike the presidents of most Canadian automaker operations, Honda Canada presidents also have overall responsibilities for the company’s manufacturing operations in Canada.
But Chenkin notes the manufacturing side had, and continues to have, “a very strong team taking care of the factory,” which allowed him to spend “90 per cent” of his time on sales and marketing.
Chenkin and his team established Civic as Canada’s most popular passenger car (19 years and counting). “We never had a target like that, it just happened. There is no other country where Civic has this reputation, where Civic is Honda.”
But Chenkin is most proud of the structure he helped put in place to enable the continuous and smooth transition of top management. “Creating an organizational structure than can sustain itself was my main focus [over] the last four years.”
He recalls the town-hall meeting at Honda Canada HQ when he announced his retirement. When he announced that his successor would be then second in command, and another Canadian, David Gardiner, the groans turned to cheers and a standing ovation.
“Everyone under Dave got promoted up one level, so we had the perfect transition.”
MANAGEMENT STABILITY KEY
Chenkin believes upper management stability is key in the Canadian marketplace, to leverage the best of both staff and dealer networks. He says that dealers usually go into a “holding pattern,” until they get a sense of the new president’s priorities.
Considering his appetite to learn and keep busy, it should be no surprise to learn that Chenkin didn’t stay fully retired for very long. In May, he joined the Dilawri Group of automotive dealerships in an advisory role. The nature of the part-time position also allows him some work-life flexibility, and to stay of out of the group’s day-to-day operations, especially accounting.