Jed Connelly says despite the U.S. auto industry not being “an expansionary market,†he is confident Nissan North America Inc. will continue to see growth.

Connelly, senior vice president-sales and marketing, announced his retirement earlier today (March 8) from NNA. (See related story: Nissan’s Connelly to Retire )

“(Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s) fiscal year ends this month and our sales will be up 7% year-over-year,†Connelly says in a conference call with journalists. “Our sales were actually up in a flat market. I think the next couple of years will be tough, but I think we’ll still show year-over-year sales gain and I think we’ll show share gain.â€

Jed Connelly

As Connelly prepares to leave the auto maker, whose North American sales and marketing arm he has headed since 2001, Nissan is about to launch a variety of high-volume products in the U.S., including the all-new Altima midsize sedan and Sentra compact car, both due this fall.

“I think we’ve got these things nailed,†he says of the Altima and Sentra, as well as the new Versa subcompact, due this summer. (See related story: Nissan to Bring Small Car to U.S., Expand Mexico Production )

“They are great products, and I just talked to Dan (Gaudette, senior vice president-manufacturing and quality assurance) yesterday, and he’s very optimistic about our ability to bring those things right out of the gate with outstanding quality.â€

During his time at the helm, NNA saw phenomenal growth but also a variety of embarrassing quality glitches, mainly with products built at its newest North American manufacturing plant in Canton, MS.

But Connelly says the good has outweighed the bad.

“I can look Mr. (Carlos) Ghosn (Nissan CEO) in the eye and say, ‘I’m leaving the organization better than I found it,’†he says.

Despite indications just a month ago that he would remain with NNA as it prepares to transfer its North American sales and marketing headquarters from the Los Angeles-area to Nashville, Connelly says the time seemed right to move on as Brad Bradshaw, who saw great success during his time as president of Nissan Canada Inc., returned to the U.S. market.

“I really came to the conclusion (to retire) in the last 30-45 days with my wife,†Connelly says. “(Nissan) identified Brad Bradshaw as the logical successor to me some time ago.â€

Nissan’s executive level staff in Gardena was to make a decision on whether or not they would move to Tennessee by Feb. 1.

At that time, some 12 people elected to either retire or not move, including Jack Collins, NNA’s long-time vice president-product planning. (See related story: Nissan’s Collins Not Making Move to Nashville )

“At that point that really still was my intention (to move to Nashville),†Connelly says of the Feb. 1 deadline.

“My conversations in terms of relocation were directly with Mr. Ghosn. We always talked about succession planning. We knew for the last 12 months what the succession plan was and loosely the timing.

“I talked to him about it, and I really thought that Brad was ready. You don’t really want to stay around too long and get in his way. It seemed like the best, most logical thing to do, and it looked like the cleanest thing for the company,†he says.

Connelly says it looks like 50% of Nissan’s non-executive ranks in California will not be making the move to Nashville. They have until April 1 to make an official decision.

Nissan already is interviewing in Nashville for a variety of positions, and Connelly says offers have been made to people with marketing and pricing expertise.

He says the auto maker is recruiting nationally but adds, “there are a lot of talented people in Detroit.†Nissan also has seen interest among California-based automotive workers, he says.

“I don’t minimize the impact,†Connelly says of the move. “I know it’s going to be difficult. People are not going to get their vacations this summer like they normally do. I’m not saying we won’t have hiccups, but our expectation is our hiccups won’t be visible to our customers.â€

As for his future, Connelly says he will take the summer off then decide in September what his future holds.

He says he would not entertain a job offer from another auto maker.

“My heart’s with Nissan,†he says. “I started with Volkswagen (AG) in March of 1969. I’ve been doing this for 36 years. No matter how good business is or how great the company is, or how great the people are, it can be a very draining experiencing. If I did something, it would be outside the car business.â€

Connelly says his proudest achievement during his time at Nissan is “the people I’m leaving behind.â€

Most of the senior executives have been put in place in the six years Connelly has held the top job. “I think it’s as good a team as we’ve ever had and I feel really, really good about the people that are here. I don’t think we have any holes.â€Â

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com