Resurgent Nissan wanted a full-sized pickup. It chose a former GM and Chrysler engineer to create it.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1989
Role: Vice president, North American product planning
Key influence: Oversaw Nissan's entry into big American pickups
The project signaled to U.S. consumers, dealers and competitors that Nissan was safely past its 1990s-era financial troubles and would remain a fully committed player for the long term.
His challenge was formidable.
In 1999, Nissan was barely a decade into serious engineering and product development in the United States. Dominique, a mustachioed electrical engineer from Detroit who had worked at both General Motors and Chrysler Corp., had joined Nissan in 1989. That year, the Japanese automaker recruited a U.S. engineering staff in Michigan, principally to execute a joint-venture project to develop the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager minivans with Ford Motor Co.
“Our entire employee phone list fit onto the top half of an 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper,” Dominique recalls. “But we grew very fast.”
Through the 1990s, Nissan product planners and retailers had a wish list of products they thought the company needed. Chief among them: a full-sized pickup that could compete with the Ford F series and Chevrolet Silverado.
“But when you don't have a lot of financial resources,” Dominique says, “you stay focused on your core products. And for Nissan, that was cars and smaller trucks.”
Carlos Ghosn's plan to revitalize Nissan kicked open the door to new product segments in 1999. Dominique was tapped to manage the work on what would become the Titan pickup. His directives:
-- Give customers everything they expect from a big American pickup: horsepower, towing capacity, cargo space, durability and cabin space.
-- Include things that the Detroit 3 do not, such as a standard spray-in bed liner.
-- Bring the truck to market at the same price as the high-volume Detroit 3 competitors.
-- Rely on Nissan engineers and component suppliers who have never executed a big pickup.
It took some cultural adjustment inside Nissan, Dominique admits. In one early face-to-face discussion with powertrain engineers in Japan, where the Titan's U.S.-built engine was to be developed, a Japanese manager asked for clarification. “Larry-san,” Dominique recalls being asked, “why does this vehicle need to have a V-8 engine? Is it to be a military vehicle?”
Dominique realized that his Japanese colleagues needed to come to America to understand the pickup market here. They spent weeks traveling through Texas and suburban America observing and talking to consumers, visiting shopping malls and driving through parking lots.
One day as the group was visiting a Lowe's store, a massive Ford F-350 pickup pulled into a parking spot next to them. As the engineers watched, the doors opened and down from the truck stepped a petite woman and two young children.
The vision seemed to cement all that Nissan's U.S. product planners were claiming.
Today, with the Titan in its second generation, such cross-cultural understanding will help Dominique in a new area. His product planning duties will have him increasingly involved in tailoring vehicles for consumers in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.
“Those are very different markets and very different consumers,” says the former engineer. “The broader product experience we have today is really going to help us.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.