Johan de Nysschen, who stepped down as head of Audi of America last week, has been lured away by Nissan Motor Co. to become senior vice president in charge of the Infiniti luxury brand worldwide.
Hiring de Nysschen is a coup for Infiniti, which over the past few years has set ambitious global sales goals while targeting Audi as one of the upscale brands to beat.
De Nysschen, 52, will report to Andy Palmer, Nissan's executive vice president in charge of product planning, business strategy, marketing communications and the Infiniti division, the automaker said today.
The appointment is effective July 1. Nissan said De Nysschen will be based at Infiniti's new global headquarters in Hong Kong, which opened on May 22.
"We have exciting and ambitious plans for improving the Infiniti brand including introducing new models in all markets where premium customer demand exists," Palmer said in a statement.
"Johan is a highly successful global luxury automotive executive and his leadership of Infiniti will be a key factor in realizing the potential of the Infiniti brand."
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn disclosed in May that the automaker was preparing to name a new global chief of Infiniti to expand the brand worldwide.
Recruiting the best
Palmer told Automotive News last month that Nissan decided to recruit an outsider with a solid track record.
"When we go out and buy talent, we're going to make sure it's the best," Palmer said.
De Nysschen resigned from Audi last week after 19 years with the German automaker.
In an email to Audi employees and dealers, de Nysschen said he was ready for a new challenge.
"I thrive on developing turnaround strategies and on building companies, but Audi of America is no longer a construction site. It needs leadership with a different skill set. I want Audi to win. But I too, need to secure my future, and must play to my own strengths," he said.
"Stepping aside for new leadership, and setting forth to seek out a new construction site ... is a painful but appropriate decision at this time."
With an expanded and overhauled product lineup, Audi's annual U.S. sales topped 100,000 units for the first time two years ago, and its share of the U.S. luxury market has climbed from 5.3 percent to 10 percent this year.
Through May, Audi's U.S. sales have advanced 15 percent to 52,494 units.
De Nysschen will fill a top executive post at Nissan that has been vacant since Corporate Vice President Toru Saito's departure was announced in March. Saito had been in charge of the global Infiniti business unit, but was named COO of specialty vehicle producer Autech Japan.
Nissan has set ambitious plans for Infiniti under its midterm business plan that extends through March 2017.
The automaker is targeting global Infiniti sales of 500,000 units by then, compared with about 150,000 in 2011, with most of the push coming in Asia, North America and Europe.
That should give it a 10 percent share of the global luxury car market, Nissan executives have said.
And Infiniti plans to expand its lineup to at least 10 vehicles, up from eight today.
Over the past two years, Infiniti has pursued partnerships with Daimler AG. One such deal will produce a four-cylinder engine that Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz will share. The engine will be produced by Nissan in Decherd, Tenn.
The Infiniti brand -- once sold exclusively in the United States -- is now marketed in 46 countries and regions, with plans to expand to 70 markets by 2016.
It is adding Australia, Mexico and Brazil to its markets this year.
Nissan says Infiniti is on track to achieve record worldwide sales of 200,000 units this year, but it will still lag Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW in volume.
Audi has been Infiniti's closest rival for the past few years in the United States.
In 2010, Infiniti narrowly outsold Audi, 103,411vehicles to 101,629. But last year, hurt by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Infiniti volume fell behind Audi, 98,461 vehicles to 117,561.
Audi sold 1.3 million vehicles globally in 2011.
Enhancing pricing power is the top priority for Infiniti, Palmer told Automotive News last month.
"The absolute requirement is that transaction prices should be equal to the German Big 3. That's more of a priority for us than the 500,000," Palmer said.
Infiniti routinely tracks transaction prices at rival brands, adjusted for the amount of features and accessories on cars and light trucks.
Infiniti is on par with Lexus, and both Japanese brands are on Audi's heels, Palmer said. BMW and Mercedes are further ahead, Palmer told Automotive News.
Part of de Nysschen's new task will be to expand the Infiniti distribution network in new and existing markets.
Infiniti will be adding a small number of dealers in the United States.
But the Japanese brand's real growth challenges are in Asia and Europe -- where European rivals have a significant lead.
In China, Infiniti's second-largest market behind the United States, the brand's sales rose 40 percent to 19,000 units last year.
And in Europe, where competitors Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi have been entrenched for years, Infiniti has struggled to become established and now faces an economic downturn across the region.
Hans Greimel and Autoweek contributed to this report
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