YOKOHAMA, Japan — Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida, fighting to reboot the carmaker as it braces for its biggest-ever operating annual loss, expects business to start rebounding in the new year.
Earnings should show a turnaround in the January-March period, or the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year, Uchida said. That comes too late to forestall a second straight year of red ink, but the rebound will deliver momentum for a return to profitability in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022.
Speaking in an interview for Automotive News' Daily Drive Podcast, Uchida said Nissan Motor Co. is on track to achieve an operating profit margin of 2 percent that fiscal year.
A lingering wild card is the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes a comeback at Japan's second-largest carmaker even more difficult. Its outlook doesn't account for a second wave of infections.
"We expect to start to recover by Q4," Uchida said. "That is the assumption we are looking at. But of course, we don't know if a second wave will come. There's a lot of uncertainty we see in front of us."
Nissan plunged to a global operating loss of ¥153.9 billion ($1.45 billion) in the fiscal first quarter ended June 30 as revenue fell by half. Earnings were hammered by $738.1 million in special charges from the pandemic and restructuring under its updated business plan, Nissan Next.
Nissan is closing plants, realigning production and trimming models in an effort to cut $2.82 billion in fixed costs to bolster the bottom line. The plan banks on new products, such as the Sentra sedan and Rogue crossover, to increase net revenue per vehicle.
Uchida said Nissan is scrutinizing its North American operations to boost efficiency and cut fixed costs, though he declined to reveal specifics. "We have a lot of things we need to review," he said. "There are many areas we can still optimize. That is what I'm asking my team to focus on."
When the Nissan Next business plan wraps up in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2024, Uchida wants Nissan's core operating profit margin to exceed 5 percent. Nissan is already developing a new business plan for the post-Nissan Next era, Uchida said. That plan will focus on growth.
Uchida wants to achieve profitability through "quality of sales" — meaning higher-value transactions that don't rely on discounting or fleet volume. Nissan tried a similar strategy under Uchida's predecessor, Hiroto Saikawa, but with lackluster results — sales plunged without the spiffs.
But Uchida says the dynamic is different this time, thanks to an influx of fresh product.
"The quality of sales direction was set even before my time," he said. "But of course, you will not be able to change in three months, six months, one year. … The product is one of the pillars."
The new Ariya all-electric crossover, due in the U.S. in late 2021, epitomizes the new product push, Uchida said. The Rogue-size EV promises a range up to 300 miles, offers a newly developed all-wheel-drive electric powertrain and sports an upscale, modern interior.
Nissan unveiled the car in July — long ahead of its U.S. launch — to telegraph the vehicle's added value and new technologies to a customer base more accustomed to Nissan as a bargain brand.
"We want to make sure the value of our Nissan EV, or beyond-EV, I would say, will be properly recognized by our customers," Uchida said of the Ariya, which will start around $40,000.
"We want the customer to feel, to understand and be willing to spend for our value."