Nissan Motor's new bosses from Renault have disrupted decades of Japanese corporate culture by ditching the product development process that gave home-market chief engineers and designers absolute power over product decisions.
Under product planning czar Patrick Pelata, individual regions will have decision-making power over new products. This is a significant change for any Japanese company, which typically makes final decisions on foreign markets from Tokyo.
Nissan's dictatorial, parochial design and engineering chiefs have created an atmosphere of building boring cars, said Pelata, Nissan's executive vice president for product planning and strategy.
'The Japanese product planners in Tokyo have been very powerful. If they said no to an idea from America or Europe, that was it,' said Pelata, who joined Nissan from equity partner Renault in July.
Nissan's hidebound organizational structure also has been a factor. For example, at Renault, the chief designer reports to the CEO. At Nissan, the chief designer reported to the chief engineer. Pelata has changed that; now the designers, engineers and product planners report to him.
Pelata also wants to change Nissan's Japan-centric design theories. He said Japanese chief designers have frequently killed off concepts and designs because the home market would not like them - even if the vehicle was destined for America.
Such a restrictive environment led many to play it safe in order not to have a product idea turned down. Hence boring products.
'There have been good talents but bad decisions. Now there is no taboo,' Pelata said in an interview with Automotive News after meeting with Nissan executives in Los Angeles.
Nissan design should have a unifying corporate face but also should allow for regional cultural differences, Pelata said. Also, if Nissan's Japanese studio is working on a product destined for Europe or North America, the local market has final say on the design.
'Nissan has had three separate faces for Japan, North America and Europe. That is bad for a global company because then no one really knows what the brand is,' Pelata said.
'Renault cars look like Renaults. It's difficult to describe, but there is something that shows that a car is a Renault. That feeling exists at Nissan, but it is completely underground. It's not expressed in design, and therefore the customer can't see it,' he added.
Pelata, 44, comes from an engineering background. In ascending through the Renault ranks beginning in 1984, he was involved in sheet-metal process engineering, chassis design and vehicle engineering before being placed in charge of all Renault vehicle development in 1998.
Nissan executives acknowledge that Pelata's newcomer status in the company, combined with his youth, has rankled the established hierarchy that respects age and time served.
'The Japanese engineers and older executives have been resistant,' said Koji Hijikata, Nissan North America senior vice president for corporate strategy and development. 'But Pelata is very smart, and very stubborn.'
Hijikata said Nissan North America is backing Pelata's play
to 'shortcut' the development process, because it means a better chance of getting products that would succeed in the North American market.
Pelata says he understands the obstacles facing him, especially from executives who think Nissan is too big to fail.
'I think Nissan still does not understand all the changes they need to make,' Pelata said.
Pelata's ideas are supported by his superiors, which may help clear the way for his plans.
'Clearly, they have a me-too problem,' said Louis Schweitzer, chairman of Renault SA.
Nissan has spent too much of its time chasing Toyota instead of being innovative, Schweitzer said. And only because Nissan has rapid lead times is it 18 months behind Toyota instead of four years, he said.
But that is still trailing the leader of the pack instead of finding new paths to take. It also has not helped that Nissan has been factory-driven rather than customer-driven. 'We were in a manufacturing ideology, where the plants and technology came first,' Pelata said.
Now, Nissan will find out customer needs first, region by region. A slate of customer-driven product plans will be presented to Nissan's board in December.
Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International, applauded the direction Pelata is taking Nissan.
'It will be difficult and dangerous around here to do a bland, me-too product. There will be hell to pay if you do, and that's inspirational to a designer,' Hirshberg said.
There also has been talk of sharing Nissan and Renault platforms, but for now the only commitment is to share the next Renault Clio/Twingo and Nissan Micra/March/Cube. Those products account for 1 million units a year.
'I pay attention to the fact that Renault and Nissan combine with each other in the best possible way,' said Georges Douin, Renault executive vice president for product planning and international operations. In the case of the Clio/Micra platform, that means Renault will take the lead.
As far as sharing badges, 'Either we decide to make one product for the two brands, or we make different products based on the same platform,' Douin said.
Pelata said bringing Renault products to America with Nissan badges is in the cards. 'We would need at least two years to adapt Nissan powertrains to Renault products,' Pelata said. 'Nissan has excellent reliability and durability with its powertrains, so we need to be very cautious with this part of the brand. Then we need to see if the product would be a clear plus for Nissan or Infiniti.'
A first case of cross-badging might apply to the Renault Avantime, an unconventional coupe based on the platform of the Espace minivan. Matra Automobile, which builds the Espace, is studying whether the Avantime could be adapted to U.S. regulatory standards and customer tastes.
But, Pelata cautioned, 'Renault's strategy is not in North America. It is in South America, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. We would only do this if there is a segment where a Renault product would be a good answer for Nissan's business.'
Pelata said he also sees Nissan being more flexible with its existing and upcoming generation of platforms, rather than trying to make big changes with Renault all at once.
'If we could have a great platform, but it would take until 2004, it might be too late. So instead we want a not-quite-so-advanced platform that can have lots of new offshoots in a shorter time,' Pelata said.
He added that such an action duplicates Renault's current strategy with the Megane, in which a less complex sedan redesign allowed the automaker quickly to create the Scenic minivan variant that has taken Europe by storm.
Automotive News Editor Peter Brown and Automotive News Europe Staff Reporter Stephane Farhi contributed to this report