Managers of premium auto brands keep asking themselves (and sometime me): “What is the secret of Audi’s success?” 30 years ago, Audi had an image worse than Opel. Last April, Audi outsold Bavarian rival BMW for the first time on a global basis. These days, any large automaker that has a luxury division seeks to emulate Audi’s success. Now, Nissan’s Infiniti could be one step closer to getting its hands in Audi’s elusive secret sauce. They hired one of Audi’s key men.
Last weekend, Johan de Nysschen left his job as president of Audi of America. It was the same weekend when Volkswagen announced a major management reshuffle. According to the Wall Street Journal, “it was unclear if he left as a result of the shuffling or had accepted another company’s offer.” Maybe, it was both.
Nysschen submitted to the advances of a sometimes very persuasive Carlos Ghosn, and will run Nissan’s Infiniti division effective July 2012. Nysschen will switch from Herndon in the suburbs of Washington, DC, to the bustle of Hong Kong, where Infiniti opened its world headquarters a few weeks ago. Nysschen will be a Senior Vice President of Nissan, and he will be reporting to a Nissan Executive Vice President, Nissan’s multi-role Andy Palmer (product planning, business strategy, marketing communications “and responsible for Infiniti.”)
South Africa born de Nysschen is quite familiar with Japan. Before moving to America, he headed up Audi of Japan for five years. Here he made headlines by cutting ties with Toyota, which at the time distributed a good deal of Volkswagen and Audi cars in Japan. Eventually, this led to the end of Volkswagen’s Japanese distribution agreement with Toyota.
Looking at de Nysschen’s new SVP title, one of the many facets of Audi’s success becomes evident. Volkswagen’s brands are rigorously separated, even if it is at the sometimes high cost of massively duplicated functionality. Audi and Volkswagen are even more separated than most Volkswagen Group brands. Audi is a distinct corporation in its own right, with its own management, even its shares are publicly traded. Commonalities between cars and group companies are well-hidden in the realm of the Volkswagen Group. If Infiniti would be Audi, de Nysschen would be the company’s Vorstandsvorsitzender, or President and Chairman of the Board of Management.
De Nysschen has his job cut out for himself. According to the WSJ, “Infiniti in some ways occupies the same territory as Audi a decade or two ago, with a weak identity among car shoppers and designs that lack distinction.” Which illustrates the dangerous late effects of branding sins: Two decades ago, Audi, led by a strong and strict Ferdinand Piech, already had found its own identity, which became even stronger once Piech took over at Volkswagen and gave his old power base in Ingolstadt completely free rein. But it took a decade until the WSJ noticed it.
Nysschen probably has changed jobs at the right time. Volkswagen’s massive management reshuffle on a global scale indicates that someone is worried in Wolfsburg. The Volkswagen Group is heading into rough waters at home in Europe. Today, further management changes were announced, and more men are likely to go overboard. The last decade was a decade of German carmakers. Their luck could be running out.