Revolving door continues to spin at Nissan

Brian Carolin: 24-year veteran starts next month
NASHVILLE — Management continues to churn at Nissan.

CEO Carlos Ghosn is moving a 24-year Nissan Motor Co. veteran from Switzerland to Nashville to take control of the automaker's North American sales and marketing operations on April 1.

He replaces Mark McNabb, a 21-year Nissan veteran who last week joined a long list of company executives to leave Nissan North America Inc. over the past two years.

Management churn has been a fact of life at Nissan, as Ghosn pushes executives to achieve tough objectives. In addition to meeting Nissan and Infiniti brand sales and profit targets, McNabb, 46, traveled heavily to launch the Infiniti brand in markets around the world.

It's not clear, though, whether the turnover has damaged Nissan. Combined U.S. sales for the Nissan and Infiniti brands rose 4.8 percent last year, in an overall market that dropped 2.5 percent.

McNabb's replacement, Brian Carolin, 51, who has been senior vice president for European sales and marketing since 2005, will move to the United States from Rolle, Switzerland. Carolin will be the fourth North American senior vice president for sales and marketing in 24 months.

In the past six months, for various reasons, the company has also replaced its Nissan Division vice president, its vice president of marketing and its North American head of quality.

And 60 percent of the 1,300 employees at Nissan's U.S. headquarters left the company instead of relocating in 2006 from Los Angeles to Nashville.

One dealer says he and his colleagues find all the change unsettling. "The dealers are worried," comments Pat Hoban, who owns three Nissan stores in suburban Atlanta. "All this instability — we just don't get it. We can't seem to get traction."

Nissan temporarily is housed in a Nashville high-rise, which is crowded with old furniture and stuffed cardboard boxes. A new suburban headquarters will open in July.

For all the management turmoil, the pain is not immediately apparent in the market.

Dealer Hoban, however, is concerned. "Yes, market share is up," he acknowledges, "but we're selling roughly the same number of vehicles, with twice as many products as we used to have. It seems like we should be a lot further along than we are."

Actually, Nissan and Infiniti have added only one net nameplate in three years. In 2007, Nissan and Infiniti posted sales of 1,068,238 with 18 nameplates. In 2004, sales were 985,988 with 17 nameplates.

"Don't get me wrong," Hoban adds. "I'd rather be a Nissan dealer than anything else right now. But I'm not sure Mr. Ghosn realizes that with all this turnover, his U.S. organization is getting weaker and weaker."

Dominique Thormann, Nissan's senior vice president for North American administration and finance, disagrees.

"I hear that concern, but there's just no cause-and-effect to it," Thormann said from his office in Nashville. "Our sales are moving in the right direction. Mark McNabb leaves behind a solid team. We have a full plate of new products coming. And Brian Carolin is coming in with 24 years of Nissan history behind him."

Key departures
Managers who have quit or retired from Nissan North America in the past 24 months
-- Mark McNabb: Senior vice president, North American sales and marketing (March 2008)
-- Bill Bosley: Vice president, general manager, Nissan Division (Dec. 2007)
-- Doug Betts: Senior vice president, total customer satisfaction (Oct. 2007)
-- Jan Thompson: Vice president, marketing communications (Sept. 2007)
-- Brad Bradshaw: Senior vice president, North American sales and marketing (June 2007)
-- Jim Morton: Vice chairman (April 2007)
-- Jed Connelly: Senior vice president, North American sales and marketing (July 2006)
-- Jack Collins: Vice president, product planning (July 2006)

European experience

Since joining Nissan's British operations in 1984 as a personnel manager, Carolin has moved through multiple areas. He has managed production control, purchasing, corporate issues, product planning and marketing.

Over the past four years, Carolin, who is British, was credited with reorganizing Nissan's European operations from a country-by-country approach to sales and marketing to a centralized business. A single office in Paris now oversees operations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, while an office in Budapest oversees Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The reorganization helped turn Nissan Europe from a modestly profitable business unit to an "extremely profitable" one, according to Thormann, who was European senior vice president for administration and finance until 2006.

Carolin was also responsible for the launch of Infiniti in Europe this year, a role in which he reported to McNabb.

McNabb's global Infiniti job was moved to Tokyo after his resignation last week and given to Akihiro Otomo, vice president for Infiniti product development. 

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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