Job One for Infiniti's New U.S. Sales Boss? Stop the Slide

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Amid a tumultuous time for Nissan and its luxury division, Infiniti, company CEO Hiroto Saikawa is counting on its crucial U.S. business to turn things around. After seeing its global profit fall 45 percent last year, Saikawa declared earlier this month that the company had hit “ rock bottom.”

Further profit and operating margin declines are forecasted for 2019.

Executive shuffling has become the norm as the automaker attempts to stem sales losses in the United States. Lofty volume targets of yesteryear have given way to an approach focused on long-term stability. Still, a turnaround won’t happen overnight.

One man Saikawa is counting on is Infiniti’s new sales boss, Bob Welby, who takes over the position June 1st.

On Wednesday, the automaker named Welby as senior director of operations for Infiniti’s U.S. business. In this role, Welby, currently director of chief marketing management, will oversee sales channels, training, model line management, pricing, and incentives. He takes over from (and reports to) Jeff Pope, who moved from that position to group vice president of Infiniti Americas last month.

As you may have heard, Infiniti isn’t all that big elsewhere in the world. The U.S. accounts for 70 percent of the brand’s global sales volume, and volume is falling.

After seeing its U.S. sales rise, year over year, since 2013, Infiniti’s fortunes fell in 2018. Sales dropped 2.7 percent, led by a 15.7 percent decline in passenger car volume. Despite the recent addition of a next-generation crossover with an innovative engine (QX50), the first four months of 2019 saw the brand fall a further 14.1 percent, with both car and light trucks sales taking a dive.

While sales of the just-released QX50 were strong last fall (the model ended the year up 50.6 percent), the first four months of 2019 saw demand cool off. The model’s actually down 7.3 percent, year to date. Only the recently refreshed QX80 and aging QX60 SUVs show any buoyancy so far this year.

Saikawa knows the turnaround won’t be swift. “We are trying to enhance overall brand value. That is a big piece of homework,” he said in February.

The pressure to stimulate volume with incentives and fleet sales, a practice Nissan clamped down on last year (leading total vehicle sales to fall 6.2 percent), will be high. And it may be happening already. At the end of April, ALG estimated incentive spending at Nissan rose 14 percent for the month — a sharp contrast to the overall industry’s 4.2 percent decline. Sales to rental fleets were expected to rise, and indeed, the results for April show a 10.7 percent year-over-year sales increase for the Nissan brand. (Note: last April was a particularly poor sales month for the brand.)

Unlike Nissan, however, Infiniti is not a rental lot darling. It needs to rope in individuals straying to other premium marques in order to boost its standing. That responsibility falls on Welby.

[Image: Matthew Guy/TTAC]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Stodge Stodge on May 24, 2019

    I'm probably in the minority but I really like the Q50 Hybrid. I almost bought a used one but I couldn't afford one that wasn't too old or with high mileage and the trunk was just a touch too small for my family. I actually like the Q50 in general, but I'm weird that way.

  • Drockman Drockman on May 24, 2019

    I'm on my second Infiniti and am (one of the few) fans of the brand. But, they have some clear problems to fix. After 9 years with my '09 EX35 I moved over to a used 2015 Q40. I stayed away from the new QX50 and the Q50 because of the terrible steering. I guess it is their drive by wire system, but whatever it is, when the steering wheel moves in your hands for no apparent reason, and not in response to actual road conditions, it is decidedly unpleasant. Hard to have any confidence in driving a car when you not only lack confidence in handling and road feel, but where the car is designed to give you random unnecessary and irrelevant feedback. Beyond that, their marketing needs a lot of work. My wife hates that I got another Infiniti, and in her mind it is not a premium brand. She bases this on nothing other than the vague consumer impressions of someone who doesn't otherwise care anything about cars. In her mind, Infiniti is barely different from Nissan, Honda and Toyota.

    • See 2 previous
    • Bd2 Bd2 on May 28, 2019

      The Infiniti models that are sold in Japan are sold as Nissans (and sometimes as rebadged Mitsus), but that's the same for Acura and use to be the case for Lexus as well. Infiniti, Lexus and Acura (and now Genesis) are just separate sales distribution networks. In Japan, Toyota sells a lot more higher-end RWD lux sedans (Crown series) than does Lexus (which doesn't sell many of the LS or GS).

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