NASHVILLE, Tenn. - At first glance, the news is astonishing: Nissan might move its North American headquarters from southern California to Nashville.
It's shocking because the Asian auto industry has been blending into the California landscape from Day One. They practically own the place.
Nissan's current digs in Gardena, near Los Angeles, are swanky and hip. Glitzy ad agencies and eager technology vendors are around the corner. Creative young people want to live there and work for hip local companies such as Nissan.
By contrast, Nashville, as one wary L.A. manager put it, is "Dogpatch." You know: A rusty pickup. A sleeping hound dog. Somebody who may or may not be named Daisy Mae.
As a Nashville native, I find much of this reaction offensive. Geography is the last sanctioned category of bigotry in America. New Yorkers mock Texans. Californians see Tennessee as a land of hillbillies. Tennesseans view California as Gomorrah.
But anyone who knows Nissan these days also knows that what is remotely possible is entirely probable - if it makes business sense.
In the era of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Motor Co.'s CEO and spiritual leader, the mantra is, "Tell me why not."
Over the past four years, Ghosn has led Nissan's stunning revival with new products, factories, technologies and alliances and hefty profits.
Ghosn's record explains why the Los Angeles rank and file have not leaped forward to kill his relocation idea out of hand. So far they are merely biting their tongues and refraining from venting in public.
One executive frets privately over the prospect of selling the family home - a real estate transaction that may have serious tax consequences. (The flip side: Wait until they see how much house those California real estate dollars will buy in Tennessee.)
Another manager gulps at the prospect of taking his children out of cosmopolitan California and putting them into school in Tennessee. After all, Tennessee was the locale for the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, in which the state sued a biology instructor for teaching evolution.
And there are cultural issues that have nothing to do with the auto industry. Asian, Latino and black employees are wondering about the racial climate of the South. Others question the cultural environment of a city that jokingly calls itself "the Buckle on the Bible Belt."
So strong is the negative reaction, according to one anecdote, that one nearby Japanese competitor phoned Nissan to ask it to tell its employees to please stop calling in search of jobs.
Heaven knows what Ghosn is thinking in his new office in Paris. But sometimes it takes an outsider to see the true value in a thing. Nissan itself helped shape the modern culture of the city in the 1980s when it built its plant outside Japan. Nissan brought Japanese schools and sushi bars.
Nissan had some initial trouble luring manufacturing people from Detroit to Tennessee. Today the operation employs 7,500 people on the outskirts of town in Smyrna and will assemble half a million vehicles this year. Things seem to have more than just worked out.
The truth of the matter is that corporate relocations typically are emotional. Job relocations have freaked out people and their kids for generations. A certain number of people
always change jobs rather than relocate. And honestly, how many auto execs stay in their jobs forever even when a company does not move?
The volume of employee protests and fretting is certain to grow in the next few weeks as Nissan begins to debate the move more openly. I hope they find a word better than "Dogpatch" to express their feelings.