Infiniti gets a take-charge guy with credentials, clout
De Nysschen's mission: Remove the brand from Nissan's shadow
Johan de Nysschen will borrow from his experience at Audi to grow Infiniti globally.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti luxury brand has had a lot going for it in the past 23 years -- sleek designs, ample horsepower and Carlos Ghosn to light the fuse for global expansion.
But there is also something it never had: a senior executive who could give Infiniti undivided attention.
That changed this summer when Nissan recruited one of the stars of the North American import market, Johan de Nysschen, to become president of Infiniti worldwide.
De Nysschen is Infiniti's first president, a significant distinction at a corporation in which most senior executives under CEO Ghosn are vice presidents and senior vice presidents.
As president of Audi of America in Herndon, Va., until June, the professorial and well-spoken de Nysschen was perhaps the most painful competitive thorn in Infiniti's paw. Likewise, Infiniti was the most painful thorn in his paw. Similar-sized Infiniti and Audi have sprinted neck-and-neck against each other in the United States for the past few years. Both brands are hot for sporty-import intenders who are not already locked up as BMW or Mercedes-Benz loyalists.
Infiniti has either gained share or lost share, depending on market conditions and freakish world events such as the March 2011 Japanese earthquake. But de Nysschen helped Audi roar back from the economic trough of 2009, growing from under 83,000 sales that year to 117,561 last year.
He will now reside at Infiniti's new world headquarters in Hong Kong with his wife, Anna, a Nissan global branding manager, focusing on only one mission: growing Infiniti worldwide, North America included. To do that, he will borrow a few plays from the playbook that served him well at Audi -- including, possibly, the creation of a high-performance brand-halo sports car.
Just a few weeks into the job and speaking publicly about it for the first time at the annual Pebble Beach golf-green gathering of high-end luxury makers, de Nysschen already is clear on a number of steps that must be taken:
The brand needs a halo car, which may mean green-lighting one of the sports car concepts that Infiniti designers have been turning out for auto shows.
It needs a larger selection of powertrains, including turbocharged small engines and diesels.
It needs more manufacturing capacity, which could mean building Infinitis in Mexico -- a strategy he also put in play for Audi just before leaving.
It needs to ratchet up sales in China to reduce its overwhelming reliance on the United States.
It needs to bolster Japan as an Infiniti-manufacturing base, even though the high value of the yen is eroding profit margins.
More symbolically, Infiniti needs to distance itself from its boisterous Everyman sibling, Nissan. In Japan, for example, where the Infiniti brand is not marketed, vehicles designed and engineered specifically as Infinitis are rebadged and marketed as Nissans.
Out of Nissan's shadow
"We have been living in Nissan's shadow for 23 years," says de Nysschen, 52, a tall and eloquent South African who is known in U.S. auto industry circles for speaking his mind. "We must have our own clear identity."
And he has some experience at separating a prestige brand from a corporate sibling. At Audi, de Nysschen forbade participants at group gatherings from uttering the name of Volkswagen, Audi's parent company. It was a psychological tactic, intended to force company employees and guests to focus solely on the brand at hand -- not its sister brands, not its global product-development issues, not complex boardroom issues back in Germany.
In one of his last projects at Audi, de Nysschen was instrumental in the plan to establish the brand's first North American assembly plant. Rather than joining Volkswagen at its new and growing plant in Chattanooga, where VW has enough land and supplier resources to triple its volume, Audi instead decided in April to build a separate $2 billion plant in Mexico.
He now faces virtually the same question as head of Infiniti. Are Infiniti's global needs great enough to warrant new manufacturing investment and a new global factory sourcing strategy? And will Infiniti enjoy a new freedom to spread its wings?
"We are clearly looking at creating additional production capacity to help drive the growth of the brand," de Nysschen says. "We will need more production.
"We have to consider our aspirations for further growth in Europe as well as South America."
He is hesitant to reveal his thoughts as he travels the world listening to Infiniti's local executives, such as Ben Poore, Infiniti's vice president for North America.
Plant decision soon
But the new president does reveal that Infiniti may manufacture vehicles in Mexico, just as Audi decided to do in April. He said a decision will be made soon, depending on which model Infiniti decides to produce next and where it decides to market the vehicle.
"If you're building cars for the U.S. market primarily, then U.S. production stands to reason," de Nysschen says. "But if you want to do it for the global market, it gets more complicated.
"If we export vehicles from here to Europe, it attracts import duties," he says. "If you export vehicles from Mexico, it does not."
Despite the desire to get Infiniti production out of Japan, de Nysschen, who also did an earlier international stint as president of Audi of Japan, makes it clear that Infiniti will not pull the plug on its long-standing operations at Nissan's Tochigi plant.
"Our Tochigi plant is dedicated to Infiniti," de Nysschen says. "There are 5,500 men and women there who are masters of their craft and have dedicated all they do to producing our fine automobiles, and we owe them some loyalty and respect."
He adds: "It's part of my role as head of Infiniti to find a way to allow production to continue there in a profitable manner. There are ways to do that, to mitigate the effect of the yen. We can look at increased sourcing of components from nonyen countries, to take some of it offshore.
"I've already begun working with the team to start developing specific objectives to secure the long-term future of Tochigi as a manufacturing plant for Infiniti. That's very close to my heart."
Looking for a halo
Creating new products also is on the agenda, including a halo car that could enter the portfolio at the high end, above the brand's M37 sedan, which starts at $49,095, including shipping.
"We want something that's more a statement vehicle than the M," says David Rosenberg, owner of Prime Infiniti in Hanover, Mass., and chairman of Infiniti's national dealer advisory board. "We've been asking for it."
Rosenberg is also an Audi dealer and is a past member of Audi's dealer advisory board.
"It's a coup for Infiniti to hire him," he says of de Nysschen's recruitment. "It would be like the Red Sox signing A-Rod to the team.
"He did a tremendous job at Audi over the past few years. Infiniti has been on the right path, but this is really going to help make Infiniti a Tier 1 luxury brand. And that's what we want. We don't want to be 'Nissan-plus.'"
De Nysschen's travel plans had him bound for Europe in late August. Infiniti's growth has been slow in the home court of its European rivals since Infiniti sales began there in 2008.
European Infiniti dealers do not necessarily want the same thing as their more established American counterparts. And both Europe and the U.S. market are not necessarily in line with what China needs from Infiniti. It is a balancing act that Infiniti's former competitor knows well.
Audi, whose global annual sales are nearly 10 times larger than Infiniti's approximately 165,000, was surprised to learn that luxury cars in China typically are chauffer-driven. That meant that Audi needed to devote more time and resources to its rear seating and the back-seat passenger experience.
Similarly, with de Nysschen in place, Infiniti will now be focusing more market research and r&d attention on China and markets other than the United States, which was Infiniti's exclusive market until Ghosn decreed otherwise a few years ago. But that doesn't mean that American retailers are the loser in the new equation, the new president clarifies.
"Quite the contrary is true," he says. "As we grow our footprint, it means we're achieving a critical mass to invest in deeper r&d for unique Infiniti products and new technology in North America. It makes the entire organization more powerful.
"I've spoken with some of our dealers already," he adds. "What dealers are looking for is a greater long-term strategy and more of a focus on brand-building. Great brands are not built overnight."
You can reach Lindsay Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.