The timing could not have been more dramatic for Rebecca Vest, the Renault-Nissan alliance's vice president for North American purchasing. Days after she was named to the post last year, the catastrophic March earthquake and tsunami shut down the Japanese industry and key ingredients of Nissan's American production supply chain with it.
"It was trial by fire," says Vest, 45, who was recruited from Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. supplier operations in 2009. "I established communications with people I probably wouldn't have been able to do under normal business conditions."
Vest spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay Chappell.
Q: You came to Nissan in October 2009 from Toyota. What did you find that you liked?
A: One of the things that drew me here was the chance to learn about Nissan's ability to work with suppliers in Mexico and also the chance to work within the more global structure that Nissan has through the Renault-Nissan alliance, through the Renault-Nissan Purchasing Organization. We work very closely globally.
Nissan is on a mission to localize more content in the next couple of years. How are you going about that?
As a company we have several complementary strategies going on. One of them is to prove our competitiveness and gain the opportunity to produce more vehicles here. I've been telling suppliers: I need you to be fundamentally competitive in this region so that we can compete with China and Europe.
We are bringing more vehicles here. But we can't continue to do that unless the supply base is competitive. And the key to localization is achieving total delivered cost reduction, or what we call TDC.
You have alluded to TDC in comments in the past. In a speech last year, you said you want to see your North American suppliers locate closer to the vehicle's assembly plant. Can you elaborate on that?
I said ideally I'd like to have the parts located near our plants -- parts, materials, equipment, construction or whatever it is. The tighter I can make our supplier chain, the better it is from a cost and a risk point of view.
For the new plants we announced in Mexico and Brazil, we really want to start off from the get-go with that near-plant concept.
With our existing plants, we already have a set supply base, of course, but we're continually challenging our suppliers to evaluate their logistics and their assembly arrangements. A supplier might be providing a very bulky part and producing the components for it far away. And maybe he's also doing the assembly work there. So we're asking: Is there a way to move those components closer to our plant and even do the assembly work nearer to us? Do you have an existing facility here that you could use? Could you do a joint venture with someone here? What could you do to scrunch down and minimize that supply chain?
The assembly plant that Nissan just announced it will build in Aguascalientes, Mexico, will include a large supplier park. I get the impression you're talking about something beyond the size and scale of other plant supplier parts we have seen in recent years. Can you describe what we'll see there?
We're at the very preliminary stages of that. But I would say that anything we can do to support a more competitive scenario for the plant there would be positive. But it's too early to make a comment on it.
Because of the platform and parts sharing in the Renault-Nissan alliance, a proven Renault supplier from Europe might find its way onto a Nissan vehicle platform in Tennessee or Mexico. But does it work the other way? Do American suppliers on your projects in the United States or Mexico find their way onto Renault projects in France or the Middle East?
Yes, and that's one of the merits of the Renault-Nissan Purchasing Organization. We're making decisions based on that global consideration. We make decisions here based on what's the most competitive scenario for our region. So we should be the experts on who are the biggest players in the United States and Mexico. But it's actually our responsibility to share that analysis globally and help open the door for those suppliers in other regions.
At the same time, if I have a vehicle that's common with China and Europe, I'll hear from my counterparts there on who their preferred suppliers are.
The plant in Smyrna, Tenn., is preparing to launch production of the Infiniti JX. Did you set a higher benchmark for quality on Infiniti parts? Is there an "Infiniti brand" specification on the JX production parts?
Top-level product quality has been my No. 1 priority for the past year, and it has been focused on the new JX. We want that vehicle to be the absolute epitome of quality. We've been working for the past year to make sure the suppliers are ready. It has been a joint activity between plant quality, my supplier quality team and engineering. The expectation when you buy an Infiniti is very high.
A year ago there was still concern at Nissan that some suppliers were not moving fast enough to bring back the capacity to support Nissan's expansion. Is that still the case?
The market has come back a lot faster than anybody anticipated. So yes, there are some suppliers who, due to various factors, are struggling with capacity. We're working with them case by case. But the majority have recognized that it's time to gear up and get ready. One of my jobs right now is making sure our suppliers understand what Nissan's global "Power 88" business plan will mean to us and will mean to them; for example, what the increasing sales of the Altima will mean to them, and what the new plant in Mexico will mean to them. I'm spending a lot of time right now being very open and transparent with suppliers to make sure they understand what's ahead and when they need to be ready for it.