Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the GM CEO who hired former Cadillac boss Bob Ferguson. It was Ed Whitacre.
Ousted Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen left General Motors the same way he joined the automaker: An outsider who routinely, and candidly, voiced his opinions.
He unapologetically challenged leadership and the Cadillac team, while drawing the ire of many U.S. dealers with an ambitious -- and contentious -- Project Pinnacle plan to overhaul the brand and its retailers.
In the end, GM couldn't change de Nysschen and he didn't change Cadillac quickly enough to satisfy GM's top brass, who replaced him Wednesday with GM veteran Steve Carlisle, head of the company's Canadian operations.
"I greatly admire and respect the GM top leadership but, in the end, I would conclude that in their opinion, I did not challenge hard enough," he said in an email Wednesday to Automotive News. "Accordingly, they exercised their prerogative to change leadership.
"It happens. It's not personal, it's business."
De Nysschen is one of few select outsiders to run Cadillac. The only other in recent years was Bob Ferguson, a former AT&T executive who was recruited by then-CEO Ed Whitacre to lead policy in 2010 and moved to Cadillac in 2012
De Nysschen, 58, described the nearly four years leading Cadillac as "extraordinarily demanding and massively energizing." He said he "loved the brand, the company and my job" -- all things he will miss "very much."
The South Africa-born executive was given unprecedented freedom to run Cadillac. He moved the venerable luxury brand's headquarters out of Detroit to New York City and was given autonomy to operate separately from GM's core brands, which he convinced leadership was needed to successfully transform the brand.
"GM is a very complex organization to navigate. I saw my role to act as a change agent to challenge the status quo, in the reasoning that more of the same would not lead to a different outcome," he said. "I suppose in the process, I did not endear myself to everyone."
He should be credited with creating a base for the Cadillac brand. His Project Pinnacle plan didn't do much to increase sales in the short term but greatly helped improve the brand's average transaction prices and customer satisfaction scores.
De Nysschen, who reported to GM President Dan Ammann, became president of Cadillac in August 2014 after stints as the head of Nissan Motor Co.'s Infiniti brand and chief of Audi's U.S. business.
De Nysschen, in a letter to Cadillac's leadership team, said they have "built a solid foundation from which to launch the next phase of the journey." GM executives don't necessarily disagree.
The abrupt change, according to two people familiar with the decision, was a result of de Nysschen's reluctance to accelerate product and operating plans and capitalize on current U.S. market conditions, where industry sales remain healthy. GM executives, the sources said, acknowledge that it takes time to rebuild a brand but there needs to be more commitment to the here and now, rather than the future.
Cadillac's annual U.S. sales have declined 11 percent since 2015, de Nysschen's first full year at the helm. Its U.S. sales dropped 8 percent in 2017 -- the second straight year of decline -- though the brand continues to surge in China. Through the first quarter, Cadillac's U.S. deliveries rose 8.1 percent with help of heavy incentives on slow-selling models.
Autodata reports Cadillac's incentive spend was up 57 percent to $8,741 on average per unit in the first quarter compared to 2017.
Cadillac is expected to report record global sales this year, following a near record 356,467 vehicles in 2017, a 16 percent increase over 2016. Cadillac's global sales peaked at 360,825 in 1978, with most of the volume in the U.S.