NEW YORK — Jose Munoz was named chief performance officer for Nissan Motor Co. in late 2016, an assignment that makes him responsible for every brand and region of the world reaching its goals. Munoz also retained his previous role as chairman of Nissan North America. The North American post — overseeing operations in the U.S., Mexico and Canada — keeps him in close contact with daily issues in Nissan's largest market, including sales and marketing, dealer relations, manufacturing, cost control, administration, vehicle design and product planning. Munoz, 51, spoke with news editors Lindsay Chappell and Dave Guilford in April at the New York auto show.
Q: March 31 was the deadline for Carlos Ghosn's multiyear business plan, which pressed Nissan for a 10 percent U.S. market share. Are you satisfied with the results?
A: Reaching 10 percent was the consequence of doing a good job. But we've never said that 10 percent was the ultimate objective. It is a milestone, as Mr. Ghosn said. We need to continue to work. We are not near where we need to be and we have a lot of room for improvement.
What were Nissan's big accomplishments last year?
No. 1 was the product. We had good results from the Rogue in a hot segment, especially through our marketing partnership with the Star Wars movie. We launched the Armada, the new Pathfinder and the new Titan. And at a time when the market is shifting from cars into trucks, it was the right moment to do all of that. We've been able to maintain a strong performance with our traditional passenger car models, including the Versa, Sentra, Altima — all in extremely competitive markets. The Maxima is doing very well for us.
It's a good balance. But we still have a gap between passenger cars and trucks.
A second accomplishment was that we've been very flexible in our manufacturing, despite the fact that we are very much constrained, because we operate on three shifts in our plants, and we have to work most Saturdays of the year. But the manufacturing operations have done a great job in shifting production from cars to trucks. I think we've done a better job than others in our industry on that.
In little more than a year, Nissan went from focusing on the Altima as its biggest volume product to focusing on the Rogue as the top nameplate. That must have taken some strategic planning.
It was a strategic shift, but it was also a need, as we saw the market for sedans declining. We had experienced a change like this before. In Europe a few years ago, this happened with the Qashqai, which became a very popular model there and became the driver of the brand.
That was a big turnaround point for Nissan in Europe. We saw the opportunity and moved to support it.
It's been similar in the U.S. with the Rogue. We saw the volume coming, but to be honest with you we didn't see it coming as fast as it did. It proved to be a dramatic shift and we've been focused on ensuring a flexible supply.
Is Nissan OK to keep relying on the Rogue to the degree it does now?
We've had sales months where it is the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., other than the pickups. We've sold 40,000 in a month. But the simple answer is no. We don't want to be so exposed on a single model.
We need more top-selling models. I'll tell you why. When I was first in charge of the Mexico market, we had only one car that was ranked among the top 10 models there — the Tsuru [compact sedan]. We were Tsuru-dependent.
But we focused on moving from just one car in the top 10 to having five or six in the top 10, depending on the month. It is an interesting illustration that we are now the market leader in Mexico, and yet this month, we are ending Tsuru sales — while still maintaining market leadership.
We need to have more top 10 models to ensure that we continue to be a growing brand.
How long will it take to accomplish the more regional approach to sales and marketing that you've spoken of in recent years?
It will be an ongoing change. We made the decision three years ago and went from five U.S. regions to eight for Nissan, and from two Infiniti regions to four. The more I know about the U.S. market, the more I realize how different the regions are. Phoenix is different from Denver. And even in California, the distribution of electric vehicles is different in San Francisco than it is from San Diego.
So we need to give much more flexibility to our regions and treat them almost as different markets. The incentive levels you need changes from market to market. One market is retail and the other is leasing. We knew that, of course, but our systems didn't allow us to work as we needed to. And our market penetration level did not require us to fine-tune. Now there's no other way.
Will the regions have the power to influence what's built?
Somewhat. Obviously not 100 percent, but the answer is yes. They will determine the mix. In the past, someone at our headquarters sent you new cars. Now we're moving those decisions out to the region. They will have their own experts who can say, "Hold on, we don't want all-wheel drives here in Arizona." Or "Hold on, I don't need front-wheel drives in Colorado."
Nissan's critics say some of the company's growth lately reflects increased fleet sales. How does Nissan respond to that?
Over the past six years, we've grown, as a company, by 36 percent globally. In North America over that period, we grew by 82 percent, and in the U.S.A. we've grown by 97 percent. We were able to do that by investing in the U.S. and producing more vehicles here.
So is the fleet business helping? Yes it is. No doubt. It's part of the business. The dollars we get are relevant, so we're going to continue to be there, even if other companies don't want to. Others may decide not to invest and to sell only retail. We're committed to this market and we see potential. In many regions of the world, the best corporations are also the best in fleet. It takes investment to have the capacity to be in this business. The important thing is do responsible fleet.
Does Nissan plan to add dealerships now that sales are higher than ever?
Today's shopping trends are telling us that we actually would need less stores eventually, because consumers are shopping on the Internet. Some of our larger competitors would probably tell you they have far too many. And for a big city like New York, I would argue maybe we don't need as many. But there are some areas of the country where I think we may need to add one or two. But in total, it's going to be in the tens, not in the hundreds.
So, no plan to add a lot of dealers or anything. No plan to reduce them either.
You meet with dealers regularly. What's the most valuable information you can get from them?
They know the market and they know the consumer. They know what products we should be developing. They alert us to new product opportunities — like the Rogue Sport. That wasn't in our product plan until we talked with dealers.
I also want to know what we're doing wrong and what we can do better. And that's not so easy. I've called on dealers who have doubled in sales over the past few years and are making more money than ever before. But that same dealer will tell me he's not happy. If they had a good March they're happy. If they had a bad March they're not.
It can't be only the OEM that makes money. To be successful as a brand, both of you need to make more money. If a dealer isn't making money, something is wrong and we need to improve. Because when a dealer improves profitability, it also helps us.
Are we going to see a replacement for the 370Z?
Not in the short term. I honestly don't know beyond that.
Nissan is starting to talk about the arrival of a new-generation electric Leaf. But is the company also thinking about the possibility of producing more than one EV passenger vehicle?
I would put the EV into other vehicles, into other platforms. I don't know in how many, or when exactly, but the answer is yes. We see the opportunity and this is one of the two key strategic pillars of zero emissions and zero fatality that are the basis of our Nissan intelligent mobility strategy. Autonomous driving, connected vehicles and electrification are coming to Nissan.