Nissan needed a low-cost plant to assemble a new full-sized pickup. Hassan figured out how to do it.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1981
Role: Senior vice president, North American manufacturing, purchasing, quality, logistics
Key influence: Gave Nissan a flexible, low-cost pickup plant where it could operate with small volumes in a market jealously guarded by the Detroit 3
Emil Hassan delivered the solution.
The result — the $1.4 billion Canton plant, just north of Jackson, Miss. — gave Nissan a flexible, low-cost truck plant where it could operate with small volumes and market uncertainties as it established a toehold.
A key part of the Canton plan involved taking Nissan's North American supply chain — and Nissan itself — outside of its comfort zone. To reduce manufacturing costs, Hassan persuaded parts makers to locate on Nissan's property and build their parts under Nissan's gaze.
Hassan had spent his 20-year career at Nissan preparing for the challenge. He joined in 1981 as an electrical engineer from Ford Motor Co. to manage the paint shop of Nissan's first plant in Smyrna, Tenn. By 2000, the Jerusalem-born Hassan had worked his way up to running all North American manufacturing, purchasing, quality and logistics.
Hassan was known for working long hours, an ethic he says he developed when he first went to work in a restaurant at age 9. His reputation among suppliers was as a tough and blunt-speaking customer. Hassan was fond of making managers and vendors realize that they often had sketchy explanations for why they did things in certain ways.
One of Hassan's favorite queries in meetings was, “But how do you know that?”
In 1997, Nissan nearly lost Hassan to early retirement for disability because of chronic back pain. In 2000, he was again on the verge of retiring, just before the Canton project was hatched.
When the Canton project received the go-ahead, Hassan reached around some of the traditional Japanese suppliers to sign key contracts with North American companies, such Visteon Corp.
Visteon and several other companies would produce major components under the same roof as Nissan, delivering them to final assembly by conveyor.
“In our meetings back in Japan, they didn't like these ideas,” Hassan, 60, acknowledged over lunch in a steakhouse not far from Smyrna. “They felt we'd be giving up a lot of control if we brought suppliers into our plant.
“I argued just the opposite — that we would be gaining more control because we could respond to problems much faster.
“But these kind of changes were necessary. We couldn't compete on volume because the Detroit companies had huge volumes.”
Despite his efforts, Nissan's full-sized pickup strategy at the plant ultimately failed. The plant remains with the same system to build other products. But Nissan this year decided to outsource production of the Titan to a Chrysler plant in Mexico starting in 2011. Nissan decided against investing in fuel-efficient engines for the Titan to meet upcoming federal mileage standards.
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.