Canadians have taken the reins at Ford, Mazda, Nissan and Volvo in their home country as new-vehicle sales continue to slump and technological change threatens to upend traditional automotive retail models.
Dealers interviewed by Automotive News Canada hope that leaders familiar with the domestic landscape will mean a smooth transition in disruptive times.
“When you come in [from another country] and Canada’s your first assignment, you’ve got a big learning curve,” said Steve Chipman, CEO of the Birchwood Automotive dealership group in Winnipeg.
“Effectively, a person who comes from Europe sees Canada and can see five different countries. There’s B.C., there’s the prairies, there’s Ontario, there’s Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, and they’re all different.”
From February through early June, four Canadians assumed the top job at automakers’ operations in their home country:
- Dean Stoneley became president of Ford of Canada.
- David Klan took over as CEO of Mazda Canada.
- Steve Milette is now president of Nissan Canada.
- Matt Girgis became managing director of Volvo Canada.
All four have extensive experience both with their respective automaker and in the country, a fact that could help them quickly adjust to their roles. And as new-vehicle sales declined in May for a 15th straight month, a shorter learning curve could help those automakers better navigate the market. Sales across Canada are down 4.5 percent this year.
Automakers report June sales later this week.
“Nationality isn’t the No. 1 factor, but someone with Canadian experience who’s Canadian is sometimes able to understand and listen [to dealers] better,” Chipman said. His Birchwood Automotive includes four Ford stores in Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as two Nissan dealerships and an Infiniti store.
Toyota Canada CEO Larry Hutchinson and Honda Canada CEO Dave Gardner are also Canadian. Hutchinson began with Toyota in 1986, while Gardner has been with Honda Canada since 1989.
John Laframboise, owner of Kingston Mazda, said Klan is a good fit, and hopes he will keep up the company’s brand image in coming years.
“Mazda Canada has done a good job with national marketing and sort of giving us the supports that we need so that on the front line in each respective market, we can run our businesses and have a product we can confidently stand behind,” he said.
“They’re doing a good job and focusing on the things they should, which is the overall brand image and those things that I can’t control on the grand scale. But they give us enough latitude to do what we need to do on the dealership level.”
Milette told Automotive News Canada in April that his previous experience in Canada gave him an appreciation for how markets can change from province to province. Before taking over as Nissan Canada president, he was Hyundai Canada’s sales director and had a variety of roles at General Motors Canada.
“I’ve worked in Canada for 20-plus years and have physically lived coast to coast in previous roles,” Milette said. “I come in with that knowledge firsthand, so it’s probably going to help with the transition.”
Chipman said that while being a Canadian with experience in Canada can help an executive understand the market more quickly, a person’s skills are ultimately more important. He pointed to Joni Paiva and Christian Meunier, Milette’s predecessors at Nissan Canada, as examples of non-Canadians who excelled in leadership roles after a period of learning and adjustment.
“You’re more concerned, frankly, if a person’s competent,” he said. “The most important thing is if you’ve got someone who’s confident and who listens to the dealers.”
At many automakers, CEOs in Canada tend to remain on the job for just a few years before being reassigned to other, sometimes larger, roles. For example, Steve Carlisle, a Canadian who was GM Canada president from 2014-18, now heads the Cadillac brand, while Meunier this year became head of Infiniti, about three years after his tenure as Nissan Canada president ended. Meunier resigned from Infiniti on May 7 to become global head of Jeep for Fiat Chrysler.