YOKOHAMA, Japan -- North America has returned as Nissan Motor Corp.'s top profit engine thanks to reined-in incentives, smoother production starts and a rush of new product.
CEO Carlos Ghosn calls the region the carmaker's biggest "bright point" and promises there is room to improve market share and profitability.
North America anchored an 18 percent surge in operating profit and net income for the Japanese automaker in the fiscal year ended March 31. Vehicle sales advanced 11 percent in Nissan's biggest market, helping fuel a 54 percent surge in regional operating profit.
"Without any doubt, North America has been a bright point in the picture of Nissan," Ghosn said in comments on the earnings. "I would say this is just the beginning because there is much more potential that hopefully we are going to show you in 2015 and in 2016."
Growth there contrasted with sliding sales in other key markets, including Japan and mainland Asia. North America leapfrogged Japan to become the carmaker's most profitable region.
North American operating profit climbed to ¥295.7 billion ($2.47 billion) for the 12-month period, from $1.6 billion a year earlier, as sales grew to 1.8 million vehicles.
"North America is extremely important to their current planning," said Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst with Deutsche Securities Japan. "It was a major market that just wasn't earning anywhere near where it should have been earning. It's getting all the ducks in a row."
Jose Munoz, chairman of Nissan North America, credited the upswing largely to rising sales, with double-digit percentage gains in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Mexico.
Key drivers were the Sentra compact, Rogue crossover and Altima sedan.
The uptick in volume also triggered a feedback loop of improved profitability in aftersales businesses, including parts, accessories and finance, Munoz added.
Meanwhile, Nissan has reduced incentive spending two years in a row, trimming more than $550 off the company's average outlay per vehicle, Munoz said, citing J.D. Power data.
"The average in the market is way higher than Nissan now by more than $700," he said.
Nissan also smoothed out kinks in its production startups that had hampered launches of vehicles such as the Altima and Pathfinder, he said. Starting with the Rogue, Nissan stretched out the development cycle to add checkpoints to ensure quality, Munoz said.
The process was further refined for the Murano and is being tweaked again for the Maxima.
"The Maxima is going to be even better," Munoz said of its June launch. "Maxima is going to be the best car ever produced in North America. It's going to be outstanding in terms of quality."
Sales of the next-generation Maxima will have a "significant leap" from this generation, he added.
Overall North America sales are forecast to increase 5 percent to 1.9 million vehicles in the current fiscal year ending March 31, 2016. They should get a boost from the Murano that launched at the end of 2014 and from the Maxima sedan and Titan pickup that arrive this year.
Said Munoz: "The outlook is very positive."