DETROIT -- When Johan de Nysschen became Audi of America's president a decade ago, the brand was one-third the size of Cadillac in the United States.
Now, de Nysschen is taking over at Cadillac just as Audi has overtaken Cadillac in the U.S. luxury sales race. Audi jumped ahead of Cadillac in the first half of the year, a reflection of both the transformation that de Nysschen engineered at Audi and the challenge that awaits when he arrives at General Motors on Aug. 1.
"He's the one who got Audi on track to do 42 months in a row of record sales," said Rick Parker, co-owner of Parker Cadillac and Parker Audi in Little Rock, Ark. "Everything just worked with him, and everybody was real happy with him. He turned Audi around, was starting to turn Infiniti around, and now it's Cadillac's turn."
Having spent nearly two decades in various roles at Audi and the past two years as global president of Infiniti, de Nysschen, 54, comes to GM with intimate knowledge of the luxury market and some of the key competitors he'll be up against. His hands-on experience in the segment contrasts starkly with the background of his predecessor, Bob Ferguson, who was GM's top lobbyist before then-CEO Dan Akerson drafted him for the Cadillac job in late 2012.
"The guy has proven luxury experience, so this says that GM and Cadillac are serious about competing against the leaders," said Tom Libby, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "He took [Audi] from almost nothing up to among BMW and Mercedes. He's a large-picture, strategical guy who has a great sense of the market, and he's willing to take the big steps that are necessary to get a brand in the same ballpark as the three leaders in the luxury arena."
Cadillac was the top-selling U.S. luxury brand for decades until being dethroned by Lincoln in 1998. It ranks fifth so far this year.
In a statement on Friday, GM said de Nysschen will oversee Cadillac sales, marketing and several areas that go beyond Ferguson's stated responsibilities, including pricing and "critical input for product engineering and design." GM announced de Nysschen's appointment as president of Cadillac a day after reassigning Ferguson to public policy in Washington full time.
GM President Dan Ammann, to whom de Nysschen will report, held a conference call with Cadillac's 10-member dealer council Friday morning to announce de Nysschen's hiring. The council's chairman, Howard Drake, said it was apparent from Ammann's comments that he "took ownership" of de Nysschen's selection after considering many candidates.
"Dan made it super clear that Johan is being given the toolbox and resources he needs to move Cadillac from where we are today to a Tier 1 global luxury player," said Drake, owner of Casa de Cadillac in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
"Cadillac has always struggled to break free from the volume brands at GM," Drake said. "Johan is a guy who understands what it takes to build a true global brand in that environment."
De Nysschen's familiarity with Asia may be a plus as Cadillac targets rapid growth in that region. GM broke ground a year ago on a $1.3 billion Cadillac plant in China and has said it wants to double the brand's sales there to 100,000 by 2015 from 50,000 last year, when it posted a 66 percent gain.
Despite the flash and optimism of de Nysschen's two years at Infiniti's headquarters in Hong Kong, he is leaving before his ambitious product plans bore fruit in the marketplace.
"We've just gotten our product plans approved beyond 2020," he said in late June over lunch at the opening of Infiniti's new U.S. engine factory in Decherd, Tenn. But those newly approved long-range vehicle and powertrain plans -- which de Nysschen was forceful in pushing through Nissan Motor Corp. -- will not see the light of day until 2017 at the earliest.
New mind-set for Infiniti
But de Nysschen created a new mind-set within the brand, says Matt Gunderson, owner of Infiniti of Mission Viejo near Los Angeles, and chairman of Infiniti's national dealer advisory board.
"He achieved a psychological turnaround," Gunderson says. "He turned us into a brand with a bright future."
De Nysschen's legacy at Infiniti -- besides a new naming scheme based around the letter "Q" -- will be that he pushed through a plan to make the brand its own operating entity, separate from the year-to-year decisions of the more powerful mass-market Nissan division. The two brands will continue sharing products and technologies to some degree. But thanks to de Nysschen, Infiniti will determine its own product needs, direct its own marketing course and rely on its own dedicated management for product, design, marketing and planning decisions.
In one of his first acts as Infiniti's worldwide president, the tall, eloquent executive sidelined a long-existing plan to launch an Infiniti version of the electric Nissan Leaf.
De Nysschen has generally been unenthusiastic about electric vehicles because of their high price relative to the potential fuel savings. In 2009, a reporter for MSN Autos quoted him as calling the Chevrolet Volt plug-in "a car for idiots." At Cadillac, he will be charged with jump-starting slow sales of the ELR, a plug-in that costs twice as much as the Volt.
As Infiniti dealers await the fruits of de Nysschen's planning there, they now will be watching Cadillac to see what he has in store there.
"I communicated with Johan the night of his departure," said Gunderson, the Mission Viejo dealer. "He assured me that a management team is fully in place who will carry through the plans that have been made."
He added: "Unfortunately for me, I don't also have a Cadillac dealership. Cadillac is getting a powerful new leader."
Mike Colias contributed to this report.